Raff wrote only three works for piano and orchestra, which is surprising in view of the large number of pieces for solo piano he penned and also his expertise as a writer for orchestra. These concerted works were his sole Piano Concerto, the later Suite for Piano & Orchestra and this Konzertstück for Piano & Orchestra Ode au Printemps in G op.76, although he did also use the piano with orchestra in his cantata Tageszeiten, which dates from the very end of his career.
Despite being the first of an unusually small group of pieces (for Raff), this concert-piece is a masterful work; an object lesson in combining soloist and orchestra. It was written in Autumn 1857, soon after Raff had at last forsaken Liszt's entourage in Weimar and set himself up as a music teacher in Wiesbaden, following his actress fiancée Doris there. The combination of this happy time and the subject of Spring, Raff's favourite season, led him to produce a work which is awash with brio and romantic fervour. It was soon taken up by Raff's friend Hans von Bülow and through him received many performances which helped consolidate Raff's growing reputation.
Dedicated to pianist Betty Schott, wife of the music publisher, it was premiered as the "Spring Hymn" in Mainz almost as soon as it was written in October 1857. With the title changed to "Ode au Printemps" (Ode to Spring) it was published by Schott in 1860 in Raff's two-piano arrangement and in the full score in 1862.
Raff's own feelings about Spring were later to be fully explored by him in the outer movements of his 8th. Symphony, but in Ode au Printemps the undoubted programmatic elements are more straightforward and in tune with the sentiments of the romantic era, though there is no explicit record of what was in Raff's mind.
In his 1854 concert-piece for violin & orchestra La Fée d'amour he had experimented with Lisztian one-movement concerto form - indeed, he was one of the first composers to follow Liszt's lead. Like that work, Ode au Printemps is in three sections, which might be thought to correspond with the traditional three movement concerto format
The poetic opening section in G major presents the basic material for the work - firstly on the violins and then the woodwind - a yearning melody which presumably illustrates the longing for Spring's return. This is taken up and developed by the piano in increasingly virtuoso figurations against the orchestra and then in an atmospheric dialogue with a solo cello and then winds. The music gradually leads to a impassioned climax from which it subsides.
The move into G minor presages an acceleration to 3/8 time and the largest section of the work. In this lively and sometimes frenetic passage another surging melody repeatedly interrupts the first. Here, Raff's orchestral prowess and his skill in writing for piano combine to produce a brilliant scherzo whose style anticipates that of the later "Forest" Symphony. There are suggestions of storms & rain and a growing intensity culminates in an electrifying fanfare climax which perhaps portrays the arrival of Spring itself? The cello dialogue returns and there follows a quieter passage in E flat minor which leads to the final section.
The piano leads the work back to G major for the finale in which the oboe presents a theme based on that which opened the work - Spring has fully arrived and is celebrated by an exciting and faster development section featuring this melody and those which were presented in the presto. Gradually the tempo continues to quicken yielding, in the bravura closing pages, a virtuoso and satisfying close to the work.
All audio excerpts from Claves CD 50-8806.