RAFF: String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 90; String Quartet No. 3 in e minor, Op. 136; String Quartet No. 4 in a minor, Op. 137; String Quartet No. 8 in C Major, Op. 192, No. 3 – Mannheimer Quartet – CPO 777 004-2 (2 CDs), 74:38, 53:15 (3/10/15) – [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Joachim Raff (1822-1882) has enjoyed of late a resurgence of interest and exposure. A gifted pianist and orchestrator, he spent valuable time with both Hans von Bulow and Franz Liszt, and like the latter, took up the cause of Richard Wagner. Eventually Raff settled in Wiesbaden, which served as the locus for many of his string quartets. Of the four inscribed here by the Mannheimer Quartet – Andreas Krecher, and Shinkyung Kim, violins; Niklas Schwarz, viola; and Armin Fromm, cello – between 2006-2007 at the Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden, the 1857 Second Quartet proves the most striking in its scope and melodic persuasiveness. Raff’s sense of structure relies on the Classical notion of sonata-form, buttressed his own notion of episodes and contrapuntal procedures. Raff’s energetic style looks back to Beethoven while his experiments in angular harmony and dense texture looks ahead to Reger. The first violin enjoys some soaring filigree in the Rasch second movement rondo, whose rhythmic motion reminds at once of Haydn and Mendelssohn. The third movement – Langsam, doch nicht schleppend – utilizes a simple, four-square (in seven notes) theme whose odyssey becomes increasingly chromatic. The final movement, Rasch, saunters ahead in the manner of Schubert, but with a jovial flavor that occasionally reminisces on tunes from past movements.

The Quartets Nos. 3-5 (1866-67) were composed while Raff convalesced from a chronic illness.  Raff in these works simplifies his style, cutting back on the sheer number of contrapuntal passages. Raff dedicated his String Quartet No. 3 to the Hellmesberger Quartet for services rendered and as a goad to future performances.  A spirit of Mendelssohn permeates the Allegro first movement. The robust gestures of the Allegro con moto second movement nod to Haydn. A series of chords in unison opens the C Major Andante con moto, and this 12-bar idea evolves into a fascinating series of variations.  The presence of hymn chords after the intriguing bursts of energy more than suggests Raff’s intimate knowledge of late Beethoven opera. The last movement, Allegro con spirito in C Major, pulsates with folk-like, drone effects and deft coloration, moving to a glowing coda in E Major.

Raff dedicated his Fourth Quartet to the concertmaster Ferdinand Laub, whom he had met in Weimar.  Mellifluous and idiomatically scored for first violin and cello, the tunes of the A minor Quartet arise spontaneously and graciously, Allegro patetico. Each instrument alternates supporting the other until the late pages, when the viola has the benefit of its especial color. Raff at his most playful ingratiates the pages of the Allegro, non troppo vivo, quasi Allegretto, a movement of imaginative dexterity. The Andante (Romanze) that follows adheres to rondo form.  The last movement – shades of Beethoven’s Ninth – opens with a searching recitative in D Minor that reviews themes from movements one and three, until it accelerates via its chosen dance motif into the desired tonic key of A Major.

Raff published his final three quartets of 1876 as one group, Op. 192. Raff subtitles his Eighth Quartet “Suite in Canonic Form,” with hints of Robert Schumann.  In seven movements, the music progresses from an initial Marsch through a series of Baroque forms, including a sarabande, capriccio, aria, gavotte and menuet, and a final gigue. Notwithstanding the “antique” formats of the dances, the scoring remains purely within the Romantic spectrum of instrumental colors, much as Grieg and Dvorak integrated their own lyric styles within the confines of traditional structures. Throughout the Suite, the Mannheimer Quartet has maintained an enthusiastic and often exciting discipline to these works, well justifying their return to our musical attentions.

—Gary Lemco