David Popper
The cellist David Popper

Cello Concerto No.2

Once he had completed the manuscript of his Cello Concerto No.2 in G, Raff seems to have made no effort to get the work performed. It remained unplayed and unpublished until 1997 when it was both published and premiered. Raff's indifference is extraordinary when one remembers that it was written when he was at the height of his fame and had been preceded by a very successful First Concerto, but the reason for its neglect may well have been a rift between the composer and the cellist for whom he wrote the work.

David Popper (1843-1913) was a Bohemian virtuoso who became the foremost cellist of his day. As early as 1865 he had written to Raff describing the thought of the composer writing a concerto for his instrument as "belonging to my most ideal dreams" and wishing that it could be "transform[ed] into beautiful reality". Nothing came of Popper's youthful wishful thinking and it was over a decade later in 1876, when both men were at the height of their fame, before Raff started to create his "beautiful reality".

Letters between the two men make it clear that Raff did compose the G major concerto expressly for Popper, although who or what prompted the move has yet to be discovered. In September 1876 Popper wrote, "I have already worked in detail on your Concerto, dearest master ... [and it] offers no substantial difficulties". A month later, he wrote impatiently "with longing I look forward 14 days for the score. What is the reason for the non-appearance?". No more correspondence between them has come to light and one wonders what happened once the score arrived. Clearly some problem developed between the two men, the memory of which was sufficiently painful for Raff to put the manuscript quietly to one side. Unfortunately he had a similar experience with his Second Violin Concerto only a year later. It was written for Pablo Sarasate who also suddenly and inexplicably lost all interest in the piece.

As he had already seen and praised a draft of the music, speculation must centre on the question of a cadenza. In the surviving manuscript (in which there is no mention of the cellist) one is written out by Raff himself, although it was common practice for a virtuoso dedicatee to provided one. Popper was a composer himself, eventually penning four concertos and sundry solo and chamber pieces for his own instrument. He did have a reputation for disagreements with composers, however, and it would not have been the first time that he had fallen out over his wish to include a showy cadenza out of keeping with the rest of the work. Robert Volkmann had suffered this very problem with him only a couple of years before.

Whatever the cause, this beautifully melodious concerto certainly did not deserve the oblivion to which its creator quite deliberately consigned it, remaining unplayed by Popper or anybody else for 121 years. It was eventually published by Edition Nordstern in 1997 and premiered the same year by Yves Savary with the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra under Giovanni Bria at a concert in his birthplace of Lachen celebrating the composer's 175th birthday. The audio extracts used here are from a recording of that performance.

Listen to an audio extarct 1st. movement: Allegro [the excerpt is the start of the movement, the the cello introducing the first and second subjects 2:11]

This sonata form movement begins with the cello immediately stating the first subject, a passionately lyrical outpouring which is then taken up by the orchestra and built into an impressive tutti, after which the pattern is repeated with the second subject, a gracefully skipping melody. Raff develops this material against a generally pastoral and subdued orchestral palette, introducing several ingenious variations including a swirling, almost Scottish fragment which both the soloist and orchestra elaborate. Throughout this easy going, lyrical movement the demands made of the soloist are of subtle rather than outrageous virtuosity. There is no cadenza and the movement closes with a grand peroration of first subject from the orchestra.

Listen to an audio extarct 2nd. movement: Andante [the excerpt is from the middle of the movement 1:57]

The slow movement is pure melody. Once again the soloist is playing from the first bar, intoning after a few introductory phrases the solemn yearning melody which permeates the movement. It is followed immediately by a lyrical and rather lighter second idea, first introduced only partially by the orchestra, but then fully stated by the cellist. The air of solemn rumination continues until four sudden brass-led outbursts from the orchestra - the central episode of the piece. After this the orchestra reverts to its generally unobtrusive role of supporting the soloist's rather melancholy, but always melodious line. A more determined mood is briefly introduced by a short orchestral interjection, repeated after a few bars, but the movement soon subsides into a very short cadenza for the cellist before it reaches its gentle close.

Listen to an audio extarct 3rd. movement: Allegro [the excerpt is the middle of the movement, leading into the soloist's cadenza 2:11]

Fanfares introduce the upbeat finale, a Rondo based upon its vivacious opening theme which gets a perfunctory initial statement from the cello. The orchestra soon gets on with introducing another lively dancing motif which leads to some pyrotechnics from the soloist and closes with an impressive orchestral tutti. The Rondo theme returns and this time leads to a short calmer passage dominated by the cello, but which is interrupted by the orchestra's return to the main theme. Raff whips up an increasingly forceful passage in which the two melodies are combined into an attractive central climax for the movement, which suddenly subsides to make way for an extended cadenza for the soloist. The two minute cadenza eventually leads into the closing episode of the movement. Raff piles on the tension as soloist and orchestra race to the finish, the closing pages briefly featuring the opening phrase of the first movement, thus concluding one of Raff's more satisfying finales.

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