From time to time the explorer of musical byways comes across a work whose discovery remains a source of delight, and Raff's Suite for Piano & Orchestra in E flat op.200 seems to be just such a piece for the few who have heard it. It is beautifully written both for the soloist and the orchestra and is full of melodies which, even for a supreme melodist like Raff, are the stuff of unalloyed pleasure. This large scale work is music of his mature mastery, written when he was at the height of his fame.
Together with Franz Lachner, Raff is credited with the reintroduction of the Suite as a musical form. His fascination with the baroque led him to the production of several instrumental, chamber and orchestral Suites which featured baroque musical forms as individual movements - gavottes, minuets and the like. As his daughter Helene put it in her biography, "Everyone used to say: 'Raff wants to pour new wine into old bottles'". These pieces are no dry Bach pastiches however, but rather a complete reworking of these old forms employing the extensive palette of romantic harmony and colouring in an attempt to synthesise the best of the old and the new. This work is an excellent and beguiling example of Raff's efforts to regenerate the Suite. Yet it never even fitfully established itself in the repertoire and was one of the works whose lukewarm reception by critics and audiences caused Raff an uncharacteristic period of self doubt.
Little information can be gleaned from either Helene Raff's biography or Schäfer's 1888 catalogue of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the Suite - but Raff can have expected it to have been well received. After all, his Suite for Violin & Orchestra was a firm favourite with audiences after only a couple of years performances and they are similar in several ways, both featuring five quasi-baroque movements. The Piano Concerto, also from 1873, was already a staple of the virtuosos repertoire.
Both Helene Raff and Schäfer are also silent on the reasons for the work's failure. Raff was certainly going through a lean patch after the great triumphs of the "Forest" and Lenore Symphonies, the Piano Concerto and the "Hungarian" Suite for Orchestra. His 6th. Symphony had a mixed reception and reaction to the 7th. Symphony was rather hostile. The Suite was published by Siegel in Leipzig in March 1876 and premiered in Nuremberg a month later. Perhaps the beginning of the decline in Raff's reputation amongst critics together with, possibly, an indifferent performance by the pianist Karl Wunder sealed this lovely work's fate. Few other performances are recorded, although Franz Gehring does mention a performance at London's Crystal Palace.
Raff arranged the second and third movements for solo piano and there were three more arrangements by others - the most interesting of which is by Schoch for piano (solo part) and piano 4 hands (orchestral accompaniment).
There are five expansive movements in the 40 minute long work:
Marked Allegro and in common time, this E flat major movement is the Suite's longest. It begins with a grand orchestral tutti followed by the solo piano with a lovely broad theme which is developed by orchestra and soloist until, roughly a third of the way into the movement, the piano begins the fugue. Raff ensures that this is not a dry academic exercise but a glittering tour de force in which soloist and orchestra play equal parts in extended interplay. Great virtuosity is required of the soloist and the variety of textures conjured up by the composer is remarkable. After a piano passage of rapid figurations reminiscent of the Piano Concerto, a return to the movement's opening material heralds its end.
The Suite's second E flat major Allegro is in 3/4 time and begins with a short martial theme given over first to the piano and then to the trumpets and which alternates with a much gentler melody again introduced by the piano. A change to E major ushers in a swaying barcarole-like melody marked Un poco meno mosso and first heard on the horns - surely one of Raff's great inventions. The music switches largely between the barcarole and the martial theme through E flat major and C major, with an interesting Haydnesque classical passage largely in the orchestra. After a third appearance of the barcarole melody the martial fanfares end this fascinating movement with its unusual but effective juxtaposition of tenderness and bombast.
movement: Gavotte & Musette [the excerpt is the first appearance
of the Gavotte at the start of the movement 1:44]
After the complex atmosphere of the second movement this C minor Allegro in common time has a straightforward ABAB structure. The opening Gavotte - almost a country dance with a contrasted and slower but complementary secondary theme - is followed by the faster and more varied Musette. The Gavotte returns at first solely in the orchestra but there is soon plenty of high passage work for the soloist before the brief closing return of the Musette.
movement: Cavatine [the excerpt is the start of the movement 1:34]
The A flat major Larghetto is another of Raff's most winning creations. It opens with a meltingly beautiful long cantabile phrase in the strings, after which the piano enters with a thoughtful counter melody. The piano introduces a sprightlier but more pensive theme in E major , which Raff develops in a series of short variations before the great cantabile melody returns and the two are eventually combined in counterpoint as the movement ends. Throughout the brass and winds are muted - the prevailing atmosphere of serenity achieved mainly by use of the piano and strings.
movement: Finale [the excerpt is the end of the finale 2:08]
For the Allegro finale Raff returns to the military air of the second movement with a brisk call to attention from the orchestra, followed by the piano's introduction of the predominant theme, which has a jolly, celebratory character. The piano and orchestra share the listeners' attention as these two themes are developed and intertwined in counterpoint and then in a fugato section for the orchestra alone, followed by one for the piano which develops into an extended cadenza. At the end of this brilliantly written passage the second movement's luscious barcarole melody makes a welcome return. Throughout this movement Raff's writing is at its most lively and inventive. After having passed through G major and 3/4 time, Raff returns to E flat major and 2/4 time for the final Agitato in which the orchestra and piano whip up the speed for a restatement of the opening material.