Joachim Raff: Heralds of Spring

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Back in 2019 I published this review of Joachim Raff’s Piano Sonatas Op.14 and Op.168, newly edited by Ulrich Mahlert and published by Breitkopf & Hārtel, concluding:


The team are now back with Mahlert’s new edition of another major find in the Raff catalogue, his Frühlingsboten (Heralds of Spring) Op.55, a cycle of 12 piano pieces which are simply brilliant, and again surely deserve a far more prominent place in the modern pianist’s repertoire…

Frühlingsboten Op.55

The 12 pieces which make up Heralds of Spring were composed in 1852-3, and opened a new creative phase in Joachim Raff’s career. The composer saw in his new piano work the “harbingers” of his future works, created under “happy circumstances.”

The title of the work is, according to Mahlert, “multilayered”, referring not only to spring in nature as expressed in the headings of the first two pieces, “Winterruhe (Hibernation)” and “Frühlingsnahen (Spring’s Approach)” but equally indicating Love’s Springtime, the blossoming of the composer’s love for his future wife, the actress Doris Genast.

The titles of the 12 pieces are:

  • Winterruhe (Hibernation)
  • Frühlingsnahan (Spring’s Approach)
  • Gelübde (Vow)
  • Unruhe (Unrest)
  • Annäherung (Approach)
  • Wirmiss (Confusion)
  • Vorwurf (Reproach)
  • Fern (Distant)
  • Frohe Kunde (Glad Tidings)
  • Zu Zwei (As a Couple)
  • Ohne Ruh (Without Rest)
  • Abends (In the Evening)

The pieces reveal the contemporary influences which Raff had absorbed, including most obviously Schumann’s sense of form, texture, shifting mood, and artistic ambition. There are moments that allude to the pianistic writing of Chopin and Liszt too, but there’s no denying Raff’s own distinctive voice and attractive style.

In most cases, the pieces in the collection would suit the player at ARSM or first diploma level, though some are approachable at around UK Grade 8. In all cases, Raff’s pianism shines: these pieces are equally written to suit the player’s hands and the sonority of the instrument.

As mentioned in my previous review, all of Raff’s piano solo works have been recorded by the brilliant Tra Nguyen on the Grand Piano label from Naxos. You can hear those wonderful performances here (followed by others of his miniatures, which I hope we will see in print soon!):

Ulrich Mahlert’s edition

The new edition appears in the Breitkopf & Hārtel Urtext house style:

Within, the 56-page book is printed on cream paper, and staple bound. After title and contents pages, Mahlert’s Preface appears in German and English. The critical commentary at the rear of the book is (a little frustratingly) only in German, even though space would have permitted it in English too.

The main body of the book is occupied of course by the scores themselves, which though busy are crisply presented.

As you can see from the above sample page, helpful and extensive fingering is included throughout; this is Raff’s own, added for the second (and definitive) edition of the publication in 1860.

Closing Thoughts

Joachim Raff’s Frühlingsboten Op.55 is a fabulous cycle of piano music in the high Romantic style, and makes a natural successor to Schumann’s collections of Fantasiestücke and other character pieces.

Being miniatures, these Heralds of Spring are individually also a more approachable proposition than the Sonatas previously reviewed, so could reach a wider catchment of piano enthusiasts.

Particularly impressive, the variety of mood and compositional approach is striking, offering a showcase of Raff’s art, from contrapuntal craftsmanship to bold virtuosity, all with plenty of melodic interest and chromatic harmonic invention. This is music that really does deserve rediscovery and a wider place both in the home and the concert hall.

Mahlert’s new edition, as beautifully presented as ever from this publisher, is exemplary, and can easily be recommended to advanced pianists with a love of nineteenth-century repertoire. Superb.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.