Raff's five Violin Sonatas, composed over the fifteen years between 1854 and 1869, are of consistently high quality and were staples of the repertoire for many years. Even when Raff's reputation was at its nadir in the 1920s, they were remembered with affection and respect by authoritative commentators. The English musician William Cobbett (1847-1937) wrote in his Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music: "I would not willingly be without his sonatas for piano and violin; they are not severely classical, but they are delightfully written for the violin." The German musicologist Wilhelm Altmann (1862-1951), writing in the same volume, was unsparing in his criticism of some of Raff's chamber works but considered the Violin Sonatas to be "certainly worth reviving". Such was their popularity in Raff's lifetime that all five were republished together in a single edition in 1877, copies of which are still to be found in the collections of many libraries throughout the world.
The Violin Sonata No.5 in C minor op.145 was composed in Wiesbaden in 1869 (according to Müller-Reuter, Schäfer records it as being 1868) and is dedicated to the Belgian violinist, teacher and composer Hubert Léonard (1819-1890). In her biography of her father Helene Raff credits the dedication to gratitude for Léonard's efforts to promote Raff's music in the French-speaking world. Correspondence between Léonard and Raff implies that the work had it's premiere in Paris in January 1870, although this may have been a purely private performance given by the Belgian. In any event, Léonard went on to report that the new Violin Sonata was "less comprehensible to the Parisians than the other four" and that it had divided opinions. Some found that Raff’s manner of composition had undergone a total transformation, but in general musicians applauded it, "because they see that you’re continually striving for greater heights." He went on to urge Raff to write a violin concerto and come to Paris himself to conduct one of his symphonies. "Your name is very big here." Raff did not go to Paris, perhaps because the Franco-Prussian war broke out later in the same year.
The Fifth Violin Sonata was published by Schuberth in August 1869 and again as part of the combined edition of all five Violin Sonatas by the same company in 1877. Perhaps demonstrating the sterling service done to Raff by Léonard, there was also an edition specifically for France and Belgium, printed in Paris by the publishing house of J Maho.
As was Raff's common practice for his major chamber works (although not the Fourth Violin Sonata), the piece is in four movements. Thoroughly romantic in style and characteristically melodic, it is not a particularly sunny work, with both the outer movements having a restless and uneasy energy which is only dispersed at the very end of the piece. The inner movements balance a grief-laden slow movement with a more carefree fast one.
A slow declamatory opening leads after a minute or so to the anxiety-ridden principal theme which dominates the movement, a feverish violin line underpinned by turbulent figurations from the piano. This ebbs away to be replaced by a more lyrical second theme in C major. Its yearning character maintains the prevailing uneasy atmosphere and doesn't last long. C minor returns as the anxious first theme reasserts itself even more frenetically. Raff then develops it, periodically ratcheting up the tension with a series of upward leaning arpeggios. These passively uneasy and franticly nervous moods alternate between major and minor and in various guises for the rest of the movement until some respite is achieved near its end as the second theme is briefly revealed to have a warmer and more relaxed side to it. What appears to be a happier ending is however quickly overwhelmed by the return of the predominant material which drives the movement to a Più mosso close as angst ridden as the rest of it.
Although nominally an Andante in A flat major, this movement wanders as far as E minor and has two faster passages marked Più mosso, quasi Allegro moderato. A programme-loving Victorian commentator might have characterised it as a picture of feverish sleep; calm passages are interrupted by agitated episodes recalling the anxiety of the previous Allegro. A gentle chorale is introduced by the piano and then taken up by the violin but the mood is destroyed by a second skittish theme made up of short arched phrases which soon degenerates into a brief anxious climax. Calm restored, the chorale returns, only to be replaced in its turn by another nervous episode, more sustained than the first. This time the chorale does not return, but the second theme is developed and softened so that it seems less worried and more consoling. After a further very brief outburst, echoed by an even shorter return of the chorale from the violin over a threatening piano passage, Raff creates a sustained final grief laden climax built from both themes which then collapses quickly to close the movement without any attempt at final consolation.
At a little over four minutes long, the third movement is around half the length of the others. In C major, it is in ¾ time and comes as a substantial relief after whathas gone before. All the same, it is a hard driven, flighty, will o' the wisp of a piece without a touch of sweetness or sentiment. Its ABACABAC structure sandwiches a central passage in D flat, built from a step-wise theme with a slavonic tinge to it, between faster sections comprising two contrasting themes, the first ascending in a series of butterfly jumps and the second made up of two descending lyrical phrases. Although effective and attractive it lacks warmth and so serves not to heal the spirit after the heartache of its predecessors' worries but rather to refresh the ear.
Unlike the first three movements, in which honours are shared evenly between the two instrumentalists, the finale belongs to the violinist. In keeping with the rest of the work, this is no straightforward celebratory conclusion. Raff plunges us headlong into a nervously galloping theme which flows straight into one in a more lyrical and exalted mien. These form the backbone of the rondo which follows, being interrupted after a couple of restatements by a gently delicate theme first from the violin and then repeated by the piano.The rondo pairing bubbles back and builds up to a climax which leads to an extended passage in which Raff subtly transforms the anxious first theme into something more positive before plunging into the Più mosso peroration which, if it isn't exactly a happy conclusion, is at least a confident one.
All audio excerpts from Tudor 7129 [review].