April 8th, 2017 at 7:30pm
Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13
Carmit Zori, Violin | Paul Neubauer, Viola | Hillel Zori, Cello | Assaff Weisman, Piano
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 493 (1786)
The “pianoforte”, the world’s very first piano, was conceived and built by Cristofori around 1700. The first piano sonatas appear in print in 1732, the year of his death. But the practical, noteworthy arrival of the piano along with music written specifically for it does not really occur until the mid 1760’s, the same time that this new-fangled instrument was first featured in public concerts. Yet another decade passed before strong evidence of a true compositional style for piano or ensemble works demanding the piano rather than a more “generic” keyboard such as the more common harpsichord. Ultimately, the great first watershed of mature piano music in history falls in the generous middle of the 1780’s including Haydn’s later sonatas and Mozart’s unparalleled piano concertos, the mighty set of 11 works written between 1784 and 1786. Between 1785 and 1786 during this virtual dawn of pianism, Mozart wrote his two piano quartets for an ensemble essentially as new as the piano. But for a few random and now obscure composers before him, Mozart became the first to claim a genre that would captivate composers from Mendelssohn and Schumann onwards. Yet when they were first published, Mozart’s quartets still bore the conservative and market-wise indication for either harpsichord or “fortepiano”, the compound word highlighting its novel feature (e.g. “loud” and “soft”) in a mysterious reversal of its two words from the original name. Mozart’s “piano” quartets are considered the first in the genre not because they are historically the first, but because they are the historically the first great ones. When he wrote them, Mozart was at the zenith of his fame as a performing concert pianist as well as a confirmed master of chamber music. The quartets are superbly balanced chamber works with all the craft and intimacy that implies, but they are also magnificent showcases for piano, in essence, chamber concertos, a kinship emphasized by their three-movement designs.
The second of two, the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493, begins with a tutti statement like a miniature orchestra, a bright and genial opening that establishes the tone of the entire work. Shortly, the texture separates into a pair of self-sufficient sub-ensembles: piano and string trio. Much of the music throughout the quartet features an echoing, call and response partitioning along these lines with the cool, sparkling and precise opacity of the piano juxtaposed with the rasping warmth of the vibrato-infused strings. Whether singing antiphonally or commingling in a myriad of combined textures, the composite sonority is like wood and water or perhaps clouds and starlight. Noteworthy throughout is the comparative delicacy of the piano part with a strong emphasis on single note melody lines in the treble and a subdued, left hand bass. A true sense of classical poise and collegiality distinguishes Mozart’s quartets from many of his successors who, as the Romantic 19th century progressed in tandem with refinements to the physical instrument, would create much heavier textures with more florid piano parts. With the piano frequently isolated from the strings, a sense of the solo concerto occasionally emerges but never to the extent of a solo cadenza. Given that the “orchestra” is, itself, but an intimate string trio with its own inherent individualisms, Mozart’s piano quartets equally evoke other ensemble combinations in a rich exchange: the violin sonata, the duo concertante for piano and violin (or violin and viola) as well as a truly unified quartet, a “broken” consort of diverse but blended colors.
The opening movement is in sonata form with Mozart’s customary fecundity of thematic material. The development section darkens the mood with contrapuntal fragments and wandering tonality, the necessary tinge of poison amidst the ravishing delicacies. The highly accessible music and the neat symmetries of the sonata form tend to disguise fresh musical creation as mere repeat. As is so often the case, Mozart’s recapitulations offer sensuous elongations, intensifications of mood and a change in scoring that brings the viola newly into the intimate dialog. The second movement Larghetto, also a full-featured sonata form, is a poised but tender song based on solo piano’s opening gestures. It supremely capitalizes the steady, crystalline piano figurations that run like a shining rivulet through the lush, dense and more earthy blend of the strings. The finale is a moderately paced rondo demonstrating the greatest fluidity of Mozart’s textures especially as, isolated from piano, the string trio enjoys the greatest liberties to pursue its own inner marvels of chamber texture. But at every turn there are new solos, duets and full contrapuntal alliances that form and dissolve including some brief passages for two-part counterpoint on the keyboard alone. The long-range personality of this quartet remains bright and, to stress the quality again, liquid.
A comparison with its companion, the earlier and much more severe Piano Quartet in g minor, finds Mozart writing, as he often did, a pair of contrasting works, light and dark, yin and yang. The brooding cast of the g minor quartet, along with its technical challenges and likely its novel scoring for this curious new ensemble called the “piano” quartet inclined Mozart’s first publisher (Hoffmeister) to ultimately cancel its original contract for a set of three, kindly allowing him to keep the modest advanced payment while saying “no thanks.” History has shown this was a profound miscalculation.
Jean Françaix (1912-1997)
String Trio (in C Major), 1933
Jean Françaix was one of the 20th century’s most delightful composers with a generous oeuvre well worth exploring including a wonderful cache of chamber music. He was born into a musical family: his mother was a singer and teacher of singing, his father a composer, pianist, musicologist and director of the Le Mans Conservatoire. An early composition shown to Maurice Ravel elicited profound interest from the great composer who remarked, “Among the child’s gifts I observe above all the most fruitful an artist can possess, that of curiosity: you must not stifle these precious gifts now or ever, or risk letting this young sensibility wither.” Ravel connected Françaix to the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger who would come to regard Françaix as her favorite student. A superb pianist, as well as a composer, Françaix established a firm reputation with a number of works in the 1930’s, many debuted with Françaix at the piano or Boulanger conducting, often in collaboration with the noted Pasquier Trio with whom Françaix frequently toured. A review of a concertino during these early years suggests the natural, effervescent style that would frequently characterize Françaix’s music particularly within the context of so much modern experimentation all around him, “After so much problematic or labored music, this Concertino was like fresh water, rushing from a spring with the gracious spontaneity of all that is natural.”
Françaix wrote his highly regarded String Trio in 1933 with a dedication to his colleagues in the Pasquier Trio. It is a trim four-movement work evincing a Neoclassical style featuring classical forms, poise and textural balance, but with a lively, modern verve spiced with playfulness and surprise as it gently mocks its own classical postures. The opening Allegretto vivo sustains a swift triple meter perpetual motion with all three instruments muted for a silvery, glossy effect. The music seems to suddenly end, midsentence. The second movement scherzo maintains the lively tempo with a new sway and swagger using persistently leering syncopations with almost a sense of “modern” ragtime. A ternary form after the scherzo mold, it skitters along in a kind of laughing dance. The third movement Andante slows the pace with muted strings softly singing a more melancholy song demonstrating Françaix’s elegant, lyrical side. The finale is a perky rondo with a catchy refrain: a serenade-like march reminiscent of Stravinsky that one commentator dubbed a chamber music “can-can.” The joyous march punctuates several contrasting episodes that suggest various colorful tableaux with vivid characters in a compelling sonic narrative.
A unique and refreshing composer by all measures, Françaix deserves the final word:
“It’s difficult for a composer to talk about his own works. If he praises them, he is accused of boasting; if he disparages them, he is considered guilty of false modesty. If he dissects them into theme A, theme B, musicologists will applaud, but musicians will find him boring. If the work is of any value, it will need no explanation; if it is of no value, no esoteric commentary will render it any better . . . All I ask my listeners is to open their ears and be brave enough to decide whether they like my music or not. I don’t want any intermediary between me and my listeners trying to sway their judgment one way or the other. They should remember they are free human beings, not obedient automata. I want them to crush snobbery, fashion and envy with the power of common sense and to enjoy my music if it gives them pleasure; which of course I hope it does . . .”
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13 (1883-1884)
When surveying the music of such important Romantic composers as Wagner, Liszt, Mahler and Strauss, one notices a conspicuous absence of chamber music. The “New German School” instigated by Wagner and Liszt and eventually embraced by Hans von Bülow and a mature Strauss as music of the future sought “new bottles for new wine” in the form of all-encompassing musical drama or the symphonic tone poem. It was largely left to “conservatives” like Brahms to maintain the classical traditions represented by the four-movement symphony and chamber music in the form of string and piano quartets. Wagner composed no chamber music, Liszt a handful of minor works, and Mahler but one movement for piano quartet. But a young Richard Strauss proved to be an exception. Though his mature output is dominated by his masterful, celebrated tone poems as well as cutting-edge operas, Strauss’s first blush as an emerging composer sprang precisely from his discovery of Brahms. In 1883 at the age of 19, Strauss moved to Berlin and came to know the symphonies and chamber music of Brahms who was at his peak and just entering his final decade as a commanding composer. Strauss would attend the premiere of Brahms’s 4th Symphony in 1885 and would likely have studied his three epic piano quartets, the last completed by Brahms a good decade earlier. In a Brahmsian thrall, Strauss composed his own piano quartet throughout most of 1884, completing the score on New Year’s Day, 1885 at the age of 20. While Strauss had already composed some youthful piano trios, a fine string quartet, a cello sonata and within a few more years, a lovely violin sonata, the piano quartet of 1885 stands boldly as his greatest chamber music.
The Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13 is a large work, a full-scale four-movement exemplar of the mid to late Romantic piano quartets by the likes of Schumann and Brahms. Musicologist Basil Smallman calls the quartet “opulent” suggesting that is “exudes the confidence of a young giant, reveling in his technical expertise and creative vigor.” The first movement Allegro traverses a large dramatic arc in the most classical sonata form and the influence of Brahms is apparent throughout. Particularly stunning is Strauss’s handling of “thematic variation”, a technique for which both Brahms and the mature Strauss are famous. The quiet and deceptively simple motif that begins the movement will be heard in several different guises, each a significant transformation of tempo, key, timbre and mood. A lively but darkly tinged Scherzo follows, by turns sparkling and muscular with obvious evocations of Brahms in the spiky rhythms and the lyrical trio. The Scherzo reprise is not a mechanical repeat but thorough composed anew with fresh embellishments, development and a coda. The slow movement is rich and sweet occasionally waxing quite Romantic with florid melodic strains as one might hear from Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky subsumed in an otherwise quite delicate, charmed atmosphere. A surging finale in rondo form features a rather serious refrain amidst vivid contrasts and even a dash of fugato reminding many commentators of Schumann more than Brahms and drawing the quartet to a powerful close in a grand, almost symphonic style.
The first performance, arranged by Bülow, occurred in Weimar in December of 1885 by members of the Halír Quartet with Strauss playing the piano part. It was repeated at Meiningen, where Strauss was working as a court conductor leading to his dedication of the quartet to his employer, the Grand Duke, ‘in gratitude’. The quartet would also take the prize given by the Berlin Tonkünstler Verein for a piano quartet, the winner of 24 submissions.
© Kai Christiansen, founder of earsense.org, the chamber music exploratorium.