It was not until comparatively late in his career that Raff began composing concertos. Beginning with the Violin Concerto No.1 in 1871, he went on to complete the Piano Concerto in 1873 and the first of his two Cello Concertos in 1874. All three were written when his creativity and reputation were at their highest and all were extremely successful. Because of the dearth of repertoire for cellists, the Cello Concerto No.1 in d minor op.193 was particularly welcomed by soloists.
It was composed in Spring and Summer 1874 for the great cello virtuoso Friedrich Grützmacher, to whom it was also dedicated. He was the soloist for its premiere which took place on 4 November 1874 in the Hôtel de Saxe in Dresden under the baton of the city's Hofkappellmeister, the famous Julius Rietz. The work was immediately taken up by other cellists and was published in April 1875 by Siegel of Leipzig.
Raff's friend from their Weimar days, the cellist Bernhard Coßmann whom Raff later appointed to a senior post in his Conservatory, wrote a cadenza for the first movement. Helene Raff, in her biography of her father, records that Raff chose to have this cadenza played whenever he conducted the work himself.
Grützmacher wrote to Raff shortly after the first performance "At the many performances which your Violoncello Concerto has already experienced at different places and from various players, which will still increase significantly, they probably must have great pleasure. I myself feel the same as the success predicted by me is confirmed so brilliantly." He recalls how he had asked Raff to "pacify us poor cellists in our truly unbearable circumstances through a concerto for our instrument" and goes on to record that it "plays frequently and with much felicity".
The concerto departs from Raff's norm. At just over 20 minutes it is unusually compact. It is in the normal three movements but they are played without a break - not unusual for Cello Concertos of the time.
At almost 10 minutes the longest movement of the work, this generally genial D minor piece begins atmospherically. Against gently shimmering strings, the kettle drum pulses a motto, which prompts the cello to begin a propulsive first theme so typical of Raff. Only after this has been fully stated by the cello does the full orchestra enter in a large tutti. Raff then introduces a lovely cantabile second theme in F major with the cello which goes on to decorate it as the woodwinds take it over. The centre of the movement is an extended lyrical passage, imaginatively orchestrated, based on both melodies and interrupted by tutti, after the second of which the cello cadenza begins, recalling the two main themes and the drum motif which has also been present throughout the movement. The closing pages recall the opening, building up to a large orchestral tutti which in turn subsides into the delicate bridge passage to the second movement. Throughout this piece Raff maintains a delicate balance between lyricism and forward motion, with his usual transparent orchestration complimenting the beautifully written cello part.
This B major movement is largely monothematic. After an opening horn contribution, the cello takes up the melody which has a lyrical but almost hesitant character and is unusually long breathed for Raff. From time to time the cello's ruminations are punctuated by the orchestra with a rather more pensive arching motto. The movement's character is a thoughtful and faintly sad one. Even the orchestral contributions are muted and autumnal in colour. At the close, the music gradually subsides.
The slow movement's mood is suddenly broken with a call to attention from the brass, after which the cello begins a perpetuum mobile style theme which goes on to permeate this joyful, fizzing rondo style movement. The orchestra introduces in the winds another freewheeling theme and then a third - the cello toying with this new material in a slower central passage. Throughout, Raff's usual clarity of texture adds to the excitement as he whips up the tempo and moves into D major to return to the opening theme as soloist and orchestra drive towards a coruscating conclusion.