Raff composed his String Quartet No.2 in A op.90 in a hurry. His daughter Helene, in her biography of him, describes Raff working "feverishly" on it whilst staying with his fiancée's family in Weimar in May 1857. Such was his concentration that he neglected to visit his mentor Liszt, at the time beset by family worries, who consequently left the city for Aachen before Raff could see him. The quartet isn't mentioned again in Helene Raff's book and, although several early performances are recorded in Müller-Reuter's Lexikon and Schäfer's catalogue, it clearly did not make the impact with audiences which its predecessor had.
After moving to Wiesbaden in the previous year, 1856, Raff had struck up a useful friendship with the violinist Karl Müller (1829-1907, later Müller-Berghaus), who was to become the first conductor of the Kurhaus Orchestra in the spa city. That very year Karl had formed the Müller Brothers String Quartet with his siblings Hugo (violin, 1832-1886), violist Bernhard (1832-1895) and cellist Wilhelm (1834-1897). This was in response to the dissolution of the earlier highly regarded Müller Quartet in which their father had played with their uncles. The new quartet quickly gained a first class reputation and was almost immediately appointed Court Quartet to the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. Raff dedicated his op.90 to the Müller brothers, although there is now no record of them having played it. He remained on good terms with Müller-Berghaus for the rest of his life; he dedicated his two orchestral songs to Berghaus' wife Elvira and Berghaus orchestrated a number of Raff's popular piano works.
The Second String Quartet was premiered at a chamber music soirée at the hall of the prestigious Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten (Four Seasons) in Wiesbaden on Monday 29 March 1858 by a quartet led by the famous violinist Alois Baldenecker (1833-1869) and was played for a second time a year later on Thursday 9 May 1859 in Weimer by a quartet which included Raff's friends the violinist Edmund Singer and cellist Bernhard Cossmann. After five years in manuscript, it was published by his old employer Julius Schuberth in December 1862 and shortly afterwards received what was probably its most important performance. After the triumphant premiere of his Symphony No.1 An das Vaterland in Vienna, Raff was fêted at a series of chamber concerts and recitals in the Austrian capital. At one of these, on Sunday 1 March 1863, op.90 was played by the renowned Hellmesberger Quartet, to whom Raff would dedicated his next string quartet three years later.
The Müller brothers to whom the String Quartet is dedicated:
Karl Müller-Berghaus with Hugo, Bernhard & Wilhelm Müller
The String Quartet No.2 is an expansive work in four movements, lasting almost 40 minutes. In contrast to the youthful Sturm und Drang of the First Quartet, Raff's op.90 has a more rhapsodic feel; the movements are less contrasted, the emotion more elusive and the distribution of the parts more subtle and complex.
Movement: Rasch, jedoch ruhig [the extract is from the end of the development section - 2:04]
At over 14 minutes long, this sonata form piece is the most substantial of the work's movements. The lively first theme gradually emerges, freeing itself from the sonorous musings with which the work begins. Unusually for Raff, it has more rhythmic than melodic character and this, coupled with an absence of the driving momentum which often characterises his opening movements, gives the whole piece a rhapsodic, freely-composed but preoccupied feel. After playing around with this material for some time, Raff introduces on the cello a lovely cantabile melody, the second subject, which is lingered over in several guises before the first idea returns and the development begins. This is given over entirely to the first subject, the melodic uncertainty and rhythmic pulse of which pervades this section with a mood of generally feverish uncertainty. The activity comes to a sudden stop, after which the music resumes with an extended period of stasis before establishing a brighter mood with renewed vigour, leading to an effective fughetto passage. After such constant activity, the long-delayed return of the lyrical second subject is a welcome respite which is exploited to the full. The final pages see the second theme played at the speed of the first as the movement ends in affirmative mood. Overall, the movement has a discursive, almost rambling feel; its atmosphere is very difficult to pin down and, despite the quality of its second subject, it somehow fails to leave a lasting impression. One is tempted to recall Woldemar Bargiel's jibe about Raff that: "He has learned much ... but everything nevertheless remains cold and hollow. The man is puzzling to me musically. He produces ideas and melodies that appear as if they should tear the soul from the body, but one is left with the conviction that their inventor felt absolutely nothing for them."
This fast movement in A minor is no more a typical Raff scherzo than its predecessor was typical of his opening movements. Instead of the expected breathless dash, here there is a rather slower and more lyrical piece than usual, taken at roughly the same, admittedly sprightly, pace as the faster sections of the first movement. The form is loosely a rondo, with the opening, tortuously skipping melody relaxing into a sweetly lyrical theme before it reasserts itself, only to be overtaken by an even more luscious melody. Its third appearance, complete with fleeting reminiscences of the two more relaxed melodies, heralds the end of this short piece, which lasts under half the length of its predecessor. The scoring throughout is delicate and the upbeat air, coupled with the generosity and clarity of its melodies provides a strong contrast with the opening movement.
The slow movement, which is in F major, yet again departs from what was to become Raff's usual practice. Firstly, at a little over eight minutes long, it is amongst his shortest slow movements. Secondly, it isn't that slow; Raff's indication of "Slowly, yet not lingering" dictating a moderate pace. There is no disguising its tragic air. The piece is built from two themes, the first of which, stated at the outset, is a hesitant, rolling melody, taken at a walking pace. It soon develops an anxious character, which is intensified by accented upward leaps leading to the second, sinuous and sweetly imploring melody. This quickly peters out as if exhausted and the first theme begins again in more anguished vein, establishing a mood of deep melancholy. Its agitation increases, intensifying the atmosphere and leading to a despairing climax from which the second theme emerges in supplication, creating a more positive atmosphere. Once again it quickly begins to loose steam, allowing tremolo passages on the second violin to screw up the tension again, only for it to be dissipated by the assertive return of the first theme, taking this fine movement to its end on a less anxious but still bleak note.
Raff quickly establishes a mood of celebration for the finale, which begins in A minor. It is built upon three closely related and rather bucolic dance-like themes which, for the first two thirds of the piece, dominate it with their bustling energy. Unlike those in the two middle movements, these melodies share with the principal theme of the opening movement an anonymity with is most uncharacteristic of their composer, who was one of the century's great tunesmiths. Despite this relatively undistinguished material and the generally unvarying pace, Raff expertly maintains interest though a kaleidoscopic variation of textures until, after six minutes or so the jollity subsides and the tempo slackens as Raff brings back snatches of themes from the earlier movements, thinly disguised to fit in with the finale's genial atmosphere. The reminiscences over, the celebrations begin again in a final A major dash to the finish.
All audio excerpts from Tudor 7116.