An oft repeated criticism of Raff in his day was that he was a vielschreiber - a writer too prolific for his works to be of a consistently high standard. It certainly cannot now be claimed that Raff's genius manifested itself in consistency of inspiration, but it is a failing he shared with many of his great contemporaries. Certainly some of his major genres contain movements or even whole works which are mundane - the symphonies being the most obvious example. The four surviving piano trios, however, are of a uniformly high standard. Brim-full of melody, dazzling virtuosity, piquant instrumentation and structural interest, each has its own distinct personality.
The "Second Grand Trio" op.112 in G was composed in Wiesbaden in 1863 during an especially happy time when Raff's growing reputation as a composer was allowing him to cut back on the drudgery of his teaching and music critic work. Although his Piano Trio No.1, written two years earlier, remained unpublished and unplayed (in public at least), Raff went ahead and composed a companion piece as he felt that he had a particular affinity for the medium. In a letter written about 10 years later, he described himself as having a "trio-fatherly heart". By then his first trio had become a firm favorite and he went on to express concern that it was proving so popular that it prejudiced the chances of the other three establishing themselves.
He need not have been concerned for the future of the second trio, at least. It shared in the great popularity of its predecessor. In this piece, almost more than in any other work, Raff revels in the ability, rivaling that of Schubert or Dvorak, to produce melody after delicious melody. It was published in November 1865 by the Leipzig firm of Rieter-Biedermann and dedicated to the Russian-born Queen Olga of Württemberg (1822-1892).
This sprightly sonata-form movement has all the hallmarks of Raff in top form - attractive melody, sound construction and constantly varying mood and textures. It has an atmosphere of happiness tinged with the memory of some half-forgotten drama. A characteristically sinuous first subject featuring a conversation between piano and violin is contrasted with a hesitant, sadder motif, first heard on the piano. These develop brightly before the atmosphere darkens and a stormy passage intervenes. The cello leads the music back to the recapitulation of the opening material. The drama briefly resurfaces before a rosier atmosphere is restored and the movement ends calmly.
The short g minor fast movement is initially dominated by a skipping and rhythmically strong motif built from an ascending four-note fragment. It bowls along, quickly building up momentum before a key change to the major heralds a more lyrical passage which retains a suggestion of the underlying bubbling rhythm. The trio does not last long and the original idea reasserts itself, carrying on to the end, gaining in speed but briefly recalling the trio as it spins to its close.
As so often with Raff, the slow movement is the work's centre of gravity. This set of variations in C begins with a stubbornly memorable Schubert-like "walking" melody, initially intoned by the piano, which has a hesitant and yearning quality. The cello starts a more emotional exploration of the material and this gradually leads to an impassioned outburst before the music subsides and returns to the original melody given over to all three instruments. A new urgency is introduced and the emotional intensity builds in carefully judged stages to a great climax at which there is a brief moment of confident assertion. But the doubt and regret which had pervaded the movement up to that point return as the remaining variations gradually allow the original idea to re-emerge. The final walking pace gradually slows to a stop.
Returning to G major, this rondo is one of Raff's more successful "celebratory" finales. The rondo theme itself is a relentlessly busy idea which alternates in turn with a declamatory descending motif, a grander five-note fanfare, a chorale melody and the obligatory "oriental" episode deemed necessary in chamber music finales of the time - this one with a rather outlandish Turkish character which Raff still manages to integrate without it seeming too out of place. Along the way in this helter-skelter movement he treats us to a swirling contrapuntal passage and a far from dry fugal episode, all rounded off with a fine concluding stretta.