It can be argued with some success that the present tendency to judge Raff by his orchestral, and particularly his symphonic, output is doing him a disservice and detracts from Raff's claim to a permanent place in the musical pantheon. The concentration on his orchestral oeuvre, for example, ignores the fact that he wrote much more music for chamber ensembles than he did for orchestral forces. An examination of many of his chamber works shows a consistency of inspiration not found in some of the symphonies.
One such chamber master work is Raff's Piano Quintet in a op.107- called by him a Grand Quintuor to emphasise the symphonic scale of the work. Although Raff wrote a Fantasy for piano and string quartet, the Piano Quintet shares with the Cello Sonata the distinction of being the sole example of its genre in Raff's chamber output. Perhaps one reason for its uniqueness is that he found writing it difficult. He wrote to his wife: "I can say that my strength increases with my task and this is necessary, for it is more difficult than a symphony or a string quartet, and I can well understand why even Beethoven kept his hands from it; since Schumann's sole quintet, nothing in this line has been accomplished".
On hearing the completed Quintet, Raff's great friend the conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow wrote to him: "I cannot but admit that your quintet is your best, and the most remarkable work in the field of chamber music since Beethoven". Dedicated to the King of the Netherlands, the piece was completed by Raff in 1862 and published by Schuberth two years later. Despite Raff's symphonic pretensions and its 35 minute length, the Quintet is a model of the best in his chamber music - unendingly melodious, each movement is built on classic principles and the whole work is in perfect proportion, employing and demanding great technical skill without either composer or performer degenerating into mere virtuosity.
The whole movement, whilst featuring themes of sufficient contrast to retain interest, has a unified feeling of energy and gentle drama. In sonata form, the piece features the piano in a concertante role, both presenting fresh material and acting as a bridge between successive sections of the piece. The melodic distinction of the opening theme, which permeates the movement, is matched by the stacatto theme first introduced by the strings, this recurring stacatto motif growing in intensity as the work reaches its conclusion..
After the sweep and energy of the opening movement, this following scherzo is is sharp contrast. The short movement opens in C sharp minor and has an ABABA layout. The nervously energetic first set of themes predominate, interrupted by a calm trio interlude, featuring a typically lovely cantabile melody. Raff doesn't dwell too long and the episode yields to the return of the jittery opening material building to a climax at the end of the movement, halted only briefly by a reminder of the lovely central section.
movement: Andante, quasi larghetto mosso [the excerpt is from
1 minute into the movement - 2:07]
As so often with Raff, the F major slow movement is the work's emotional centre. It is dominated by a glorious barcarole-like melody which is reached after some introductory material. The central melody itself is worked up into a substantial climax, following which there is an extended development passage. The barcarole returns towards the end of the movement, followed by the opening theme which itself melts into a wash of murmuring strings and filigree piano work.
This is a bright and breezy conclusion to the Quintet, with the "brioso" marking more to the fore than the "patetico" one. The predominant theme is a gavotte-march: an unlikely combination which appears several times and shares the movement with other themes of a quasi-march character which somehow never quite manage to break into a full blown march. The joyful finale is a fitting close to the work.
All audio excerpts from Adriano ADR1