Joachim Raff's two piano quartets were first performed in 1877. They are splendidly crafted works, clearly structured and full of strong ideas and fluent counterpoint.
The First Quartet's first movement is magnificent. After a short harmonically oblique opening statement, Raff quickly introduces the rest of his material, a rising fragment at 38 secs and a more lyrical idea at 1 min 26 secs. This idea is eloquently extended and, at 2 mins 43 secs, the exposition is repeated. The development is a characteristic Raffian contrapuntal tour-de-force. It utilizes the first two ideas only and so, at the recapitulation, the music moves straight into a restatement of the lyrical idea, now in the tonic key (G major) of course, at 8 mins 43 secs. But Raff has a surprise in store. Instead of coming to the expected close, at 10 mins 8 secs a fugato based on the two main themes begins. It is not long, however, before the lyrical idea is contrasted with it. This superb movement ends crisply with yet more contrapuntal wizardry.
The first part of the scherzo has two main ideas. It trio section is a warm melody for the strings and, after the return of the scherzo, there is a contrapuntal coda which, at one point, quietly refers to the lyrical tune from the trio.
The slow movement is a set of variation on a hymn-like tune which is first stated by the piano. The early variations are lyrical, with Variation 4 as a highlight, but Variation 5 is more rhythmical. Towards the end, a short piano cadenza heralds a Mendelssohnian scherzo which leads to a final variation more closely related to the theme in its original form. All in all, I wouldn't say that this is one of Raff's most memorable sets of variations. At times, as in the 'cello tune of Variation 3, he seems constrained by the need to make his melodies fit the theme's harmonies. The result in this variation is a tune which sounds more like an inner part. There is, though, a lot of lovely music in this movement.
The finale is a fusion of rondo and sonata form. Its main elements are its opening march-like theme, a highly rhythmical tune, a skittish passage led by the piano which will remind you of the final pages of Raff's Piano Concerto, and a more lyrical idea first given to the 'cello. All these ideas are contrapuntally treated, of course, and this superb quartet eventually comes to an exhilarating conclusion.
The C minor Second Quartet is scarcely less fine but its first movement is not as concentrated as that of the First Quartet, there being far less emphasis on contrapuntal writing. The exposition's ideas are closely related and the music makes dramatic use of tonal surprises. At a first hearing, make sure you pick up the fragment of melody first heard at 1 min 9 secs. Beginning at 3 mins 30 secs, the exposition is repeated. The development section soon makes extensive contrapuntal use of that melodic fragment from the exposition but gradually the main theme reasserts itself. The recapitulation arrives at 9 mins 22 secs but another development section follows. For a while it seems as though the music is going to end in the major but a final statement of the main theme confirms the minor mode.
The scherzo, also in C minor, is unusual in that, although it follows the usual ABA pattern, the trio is extended, making considerable contrapuntal use of music from the scherzo. The effect, then, is of a much more unified scherzo movement than usual. The return of the scherzo includes an unusual passage in which the music passes through several keys a semitone apart in its quest to reach home.
The slow movement is essentially a ternary structure. Its lovely main theme is another hymn-like melody. As always, Raff is concerned to use his contrapuntal skill to unify the music. In this case, the rhythmical central tune's accompanying scales are heard again at the return of the main theme. At a later restatement this theme is interrupted by a series of cadenzas for each of the string instruments.
The sonata form finale is easily followed. The introduction, melodically important in itself, again features cadenzas for the strings. The music's main elements are quickly assimilated and Raff's contrapuntal skill is soon in evidence. There is an upbeat coda, complete with stretto entries, and the music ends in celebratory mood.
There is a caveat I would like to add, however. Raff was very much a craftsman composer. He was enormously productive. Other greater composers were also essentially craftsmen and were equally productive: Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens and even Dvorak for example. The reason why Raff's name is not well known is that, unlike them, he never once struck melodic gold. Even the once famous "Cavatina" has now faded. You feel that Raff's tunes were chosen because they lent themselves to the compositional techniques he favoured and not for their intrinsic value. To be brutally honest, sometimes you feel as though he was composing for the sake of it. As a result, you may feel a certain emotional paucity in much of Raff's music. Dr Avrohom Leichtling, in the excellent notes which come with this disc, seems aware of this weakness but, in his eagerness to provide a defence, protests too much. To say, for example, that, in the First Quartet's scherzo there is an "inevitable demonic rush into the abyss" seems absurd. These things are largely personal, of course, but I certainly don't hear Raff's music in this way and, if contemporary audiences did, it wouldn't have vanished so soon after his death. Make no mistake, though: this is superbly written and enormously stimulating music. It is beautifully performed and recorded here.