Although generally regarded for most of his career as a progressive musician, Raff was also a pioneer in the rediscovery of the old baroque musical forms such as the fugue, gigue and the canon. He used them frequently in his own compositions, often grouping them into suites of which he wrote no less than 17 for various instrumental forces. Indeed, along with Franz Lachner, Raff can be credited with the reintroduction of the suite as a musical form. Raff's suites, in whatever medium, are generally unlike the random collections of lightweight pieces which later gave the genre a bad name.
A typical Raff suite not only comprises, in the spirit of its baroque heritage, five or six gigues, gavottes, fugues and marches but they are usually substantial movements and the baroque form is no archaic throwback but rather Raff's modern interpretation of the old form, suffused with romantic melody and harmonies.
Raff wrote seven suites for solo piano but never numbered them. The D minor op.91 is chronologically the fourth, being written in Wiesbaden in 1859 during a very happy and productive time for Raff (he married in the same year).The work was published in 1862 and is dedicated to Liszt's daughter Cosima, then married to Raff's great friend Hans von Bülow whom she later left for Wagner.
With the G minor Suite which follows it, the D minor Suite is unusual in having only four movements and being conceived on a grand, almost symmphonic scale. Otherwise it is typical of Raff's suites. It's movements are all large scale pieces modelled on baroque forms, the whole work a virtuoso tour de force which is never flashy and is permeated with romanticism.
The first movement uses a frequent structural device of Raff's - an introduction followed by a fugue. This Allegro inquieto has no consistent tempo and the first part has an improvisatory feel whilst introducing the theme which recurs in all four of the Suite's movements. Raff was an accomplished writer of fugues and the four part fugue which ends this movement grandioso sempre makes a thrilling end to the movement.
The critic Ernest Hutcheson called the following movement "Raff's best concert piece". It is also in d minor and begins with a simple Andantino theme which is then subjected to 10 dazzling variations before returning in an expansive Coda. The, mostly fast, variations themselves are almost an exercise in romantic compositional styles ranging from variation VIII's demonic Liszt to filigree Mendelssohn in variation IX and from three minutes to only a few seconds in length.
The third movement is a dreamy B major Larghetto, non troppo which demonstrates both Raff's contrapuntal powers and his ability to write the most melting melodies, such as the one which dominates this piece. The basic structure is ABA with the outer sections of cantabile melody interrupted by a slightly more dramatic central section.
To finish, Raff wrote another of his rumbustious marches. Marked Allegro deciso it is in D major with a middle section in G major. This tumultuous piece is built from two themes and has a relentlessly cumulative effect but, as the shortest movement, it manages not to outstay its welcome.
All audio excerpts from Genesis GS 1009.