At the peak of his success in the 1870’s, Joachim Raff (1822-1882) was one of the most celebrated composers in the world, his eleven symphonies popular in concert halls across Europe and beyond, his marvellous body of solo and four-hand piano music a staple of the repertoire.
And yet, but the time of his death a few years later, his star was already in decline, his fall from fashion remarkably rapid. His music languished largely unperformed through the twentieth century, and is only now being properly reappraised, enjoying something of a revival.
Of Raff’s 216 works with opus numbers, 117 are works for piano solo, 54 for four-handed piano, and 23 piano arrangements of works by other composers. Concert pianist Tra Nguyen has led the charge to rediscover some of this extraordinary music, her stunning recordings revealing the quality of Raff’s writing and once again elevating him to a position alongside Brahms and his contemporaries.
Nguyen’s recordings for Naxos’s Grand Piano label are available to stream via the major platforms, and can be bought as a budget 6CD set from Amazon UK here. They are well worth exploring!
Introducing his new scholarly urtext edition of Raff’s three Piano Sonatas, recently published by Edition Breitkopf, Ulrich Mahlert suggests:
“It was precisely the enormous scope of Raff’s creativity that was one of the reasons why his works were not paid so much attention, because a differentiated engagement with so many compositions is time-consuming. The disregard of abundance went along with generalised, stereotypically repeated negative judgments, obscuring the view or even preventing dealing with Raff’s music at all. Thus, an unfortunate cycle of ignorance emerged which we hope that the present edition can help overcome.”
With that goal in mind, let’s consider Mahlert’s new edition of the Piano Sonatas.
An intelligent appreciation of any music surely benefits from a knowledge of its background, the composer’s influences and aspirations.
Raff was the son of a Württemberg teacher and a Swiss innkeeper’s daughter, and was born in Lachen near Zurich. His childhood upbringing was modest, and as a musician he was largely self-taught on piano, organ and violin.
By the age of 19, Raff was himself a school teacher, but his compulsion to compose became so intense that he left behind his steady employment to pursue a career in music.
In the years that followed, Raff occupied a number of minor positions working for music shops, publishers, and in the 1850’s was a musical assistant to Liszt in Weimar. Throughout his career Raff was also a sometime music teacher, and in his later years he was the founding Director of the Dr. Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt/Main.
Raff was a knowledgable man, whose academic pursuits included a study of literature, ancient languages and mathematics. Mahlert tells us,
“Extensive knowledge of music literature and the guidance of the “intellect” also play an important role in Raff’s creativity. Although his works revealed a great wealth of expression, his composition was highly intellectual.”
Rather than following in the footsteps of his mentor Liszt, rejecting traditional forms in favour of a more programmatic approach to musical structure and composition, he clung to the models of the Viennese School, writing music rich in counterpoint and deeply rooted in internal logic.
The Piano Sonatas
Raff essentially wrote three Piano Sonatas, although his published catalogue numbers two. The Sonata Op.14 was originally published as his Sonata avec Fugue in Eb minor in 1844, but was fully reworked to become the Grande Sonate in Eb minor in 1881.
Mahlert introduces the works in his Foreword:
“Almost four decades elapsed between the two versions (1844 and 1881) of the Sonata Op.14. The second version is a complete redesign of the first, both versions having in common only the opus number and the basic key of E flat minor.”
For those checking Tra Nguyen’s recordings, she plays the 1881 version of the work. Comparing the scores, both included in this new edition, the 1844 and 1881 versions are indeed entirely different works, however, and I would say that there is a place for both in the repertoire.
Composed between these two works sits the astonishing Fantasie-Sonate in D minor Op.168, which dates from 1871 and reveals Raff at the height of his powers. Its dedication to Camille Saint-Saëns shows his opposition to the rampant German disapproval of the French in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71.
None of the three Sonatas are for the faint-hearted; all three are highly virtuoso concert works which require considerable investment, but offer rich rewards. With their ripe harmonies, contrapuntal intelligence and melodic stature, any of the three would make a suitable centrepiece of any professional recital.
The new edition appears under Breitkopf & Härtel’s Urtext imprint, with a typically simple cover in the house-style:
The notation is beautifully presented on cream paper, with exceptional clarity and generous spacing. Page turns are also well-judged throughout. Bar numbers appear at the start of each line for reference.
There is strictly an urtext approach, and the editor hasn’t added performing or fingering suggestions; although players at this level hardly need help, it would have perhaps been interesting had they employed Nguyen to share her insights here.
Mahlert clearly relished the opportunity to write with enthusiasm and depth about Raff and his music; the introductory six-page Foreword is as detailed as it is generous, providing a useful biographical sketch as well as helpful background information and analysis of the three Sonatas.
Those approaching these works, whether as scholar or performer, will certainly want to read this Foreword in full, and will benefit immensely from doing so. While the Foreword appears in both German and English translation, the short Critical Commentary and Glossary at the rear of the publication are in German only.
Had history told a different story, these three Sonatas could comfortably and confidently sit astride the peak of the Romantic piano repertoire; they more than deserve rediscovery, and I can recommend an exploration of these great works with genuine enthusiasm.
The Fantasie-Sonate in D minor, in particular, is a masterpiece which manifests both considerable power and exquisite craftsmanship.
I hope that the publisher’s stated aims are fulfilled: that this new edition helps to overcome the cycle of ignorance of Raff’s music. Editor Ulrich Mahlert and Edition Breitkopf are to be highly commended for so enterprising, important and rewarding a publication.
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