Raff's seven piano suites are his most ambitious series of compositions for the instrument. The first three are small-scale, five-movement evocations of baroque dance suites, aimed at reviving interest in the music of the previous century. The middle D minor and G minor suites are only in four movements, but are conceived on a much grander, almost symphonic scale and belong emphatically to the romantic era. For the final pair, Raff struck a compromise between the two formats. The movements are shorter, but there are now six of them, so maintaining the larger scale of the suite. Stylistically, they combine the baroque with the romantic.
In its Rigaudon third movement, the Piano Suite in B flat op.204 (the seventh in the series) was to provide one of Raff's most popular pieces, which remained in virtuosos' repertoires well into the 20th. century. The Tambourin finale was also to prove a significant, if not so long lasting, success. The Suite was dedicated to Sophie Menter (1846-1918), a German pianist of world renown who had been a favourite pupil of Liszt and who at the time was married to the cellist David Popper, for whom Raff was intermittently working on his Cello Concerto No.2.
The Suite was composed in Wiesbaden in the Spring of 1876, five years after its predecessor, at a time when Raff seems to have been nearing the end of an artistic crisis brought on by the lukewarm reception of some of his recent compositions. The success of the Suite must have helped him regain his confidence. Published by C A Challier of Berlin in March 1877, within six months it was arranged by Raff's friend the pedagogue Ludwig Bußler (1838-1901) for piano four hands, just as he had done for the earlier Piano Suite in g minor. The Rigaudon soon proved sufficiently popular for Challier to publish an arrangement for violin & piano in 1879 by Johann Christoph Lauterbach (1832-1918), the violinist to whom Raff had earlier dedicated his String Octet op.176. In 1886 an orchestration of the movement was published by the conductor and inveterate arranger Karl Müller-Berghaus (1829-1907).
In the B flat Suite, Raff finally achieves a satisfying balance between the baroque models exemplified by the titles of its six movements and his typically romantic harmonic and melodic style.
In the haunting Prélude, a typically Raffian elegiac melody stubbornly makes its halting progress against initially dominant cascades of notes in the upper registers. Although the elegy never achieves the upper hand, it does gain in strength and the two ideas eventually reach equilibrium before a presto coda sweeps the movement to its close.
This short movement stays in the home key and reverses the pattern of its predecessor. In the first half a stately melody is punctuated only occasionally by brief baroque figurations, but the embroidered interruptions increase until they finally come to the fore in a glittering close to the movement.
More recognisably inspired by the 18th. century, at least in its primary melodic material, is the celebrated D major Rigaudon. Raff begins with a four square melodic idea, which he repeats with some decoration and then extends. Increasingly inventive variations on this idea are brought to halt by a forte restatement of the theme, as if Raff was suddenly aware that he had strayed from his intended path. But no, the variations reassert themselves for the second half of this tour de force, which is as clever a short piece as Raff ever penned.
The Menuet returns to B flat and also echoes the baroque in its opening material, a sprightly dance which starts to stray into the harmonics of the 19th century as it progresses. A move to G flat ushers in a more romantic slower middle section which features a genteel, elusive melody, which is developed in the second half of the section and becomes steadily more expressive. Raff eventually returns to B flat with the reintroduction of the dance, with which the movement closes after a brief recall of the other melody.
At six minutes, this gem of a slow movement in E flat is the longest in the Suite. It is essentially monothematic, featuring one of those contemplative melodies at which Raff excelled. Once again, there is the odd decoration which reminds one of the previous century, but this is essentially a romantic outpouring.
The pipe and drum origins of the Tambourin dance are evident in the attractive finale to the B flat Piano Suite. A sharp "scotch snap " rhythm complements a catchy jogging melody which bowls along, helped by plenty of pianistic fireworks as Raff rings the changes in the texture of the piece, avoiding monotony. The lively pace is unrelenting, except for a short spell in the middle of the movement, but this respite lasts only a few bars. At around four minutes long the work doesn't have time to outstay its welcome and comes to a brilliant and timely close.
All audio excerpts from AK Coburg DR-0007 [review]