Raff's free-standing occasional orchestral pieces are comparatively few and seem to be dismissed by his daughter Helene in her biography of the composer because they were written "usually for court celebrations [and] found no essential trait in their creator's artistic physiognomy". She goes on, however, to give this Concert Overture in F op.123 a specific mention whilst remaining silent on the reasons for its composition.
It was in fact composed in 1862 whilst Raff was living in Wiesbaden and had its premiere in April 1863 in the Rhineland city of Mannheim under the baton of Vincenz Lachner. The next performance was more noteworthy, however. In February 1865 in the Chapel Royal of the Hohenzollern Princes in Löwenberg in lower Silesia, it was given with Raff himself conducting. The Overture was published the following year by Siegel and carried a dedication in "respectful gratitude" to Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Constantin of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, head of a junior branch of the Prussian royal family. Prince Friedrich (1801-69) was a patron of the arts, a friend of Raff's erstwhile mentor Franz Liszt and kept a musical establishment in Löwenberg, which once included the celebrated cellist David Popper.
Marked Allegro non troppo, the Concert Overture (for which Raff made a piano, 4 hands arrangement) lasts about 10 minutes and is a very superior and craftsmanlike piece of work - hardly typical of the run of the mill celebratory pieces churned out by dozens of kapellmeisters at the time. It is orchestrated with all his characteristic brilliance and manages to combine excitement with contrapuntal and fugal passages - in fact, a typical product of Raff's fertile and imaginative mind.
The full orchestra opens with a sharp call to attention (based on the second theme of the overture) before leading into the stately first theme, which is given over to the strings and then the woodwinds in alternating sections. It is developed at a faster pace as the full orchestra joins in. A delicately scored bridge passage leads to the first full statement of the celebratory second theme. emerges.
Raff whips up the pace leading to a joyous climax before subsiding again in time for the introduction of the third melodic idea. This is also fast-paced, but initially it has a rather yearning quality which is transformed into something more positive by Raff's ample use of the brass in the following climax, during which the high spirited second theme again
A development section follows in which Raff shows his academic skill in an effective fughetto passage coupled with thrilling orchestration before reverting to the dominant celebratory melody in a further crescendo.
Another bridge passage leads the full orchestra into a further frenetic restatement of the joyous theme, slowing down momentarily for the opening stately melody on the brass over swirling strings. This calm is soon overtaken as Raff develops a stretta conclusion with all three themes combined in varying counterpoint to provide a rousing conclusion to this effective work.
Audio excerpts from Marco Polo 8.223506.