Piano Quartet in E flat op. 16 Beethoven (1170 – 1827)
Grave – Allegro ma non troppo
Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
Much of Beethoven’s earliest chamber music was written for various combinations of wind instruments, culminating with the well-known Septet, op. 20. In 1796 he composed a quintet for piano and woodwind, op. 16. This was in the same key, and clearly derived from Mozart’s K452 work for the same combination. Simultaneously with the publication of the quintet a second version appeared, for piano and strings. Again Mozart had shown the way to get double duty from his compositions, his octet for wind K 388 reappearing as the string quintet K 406. Many touches in the string version of op. 16 show the original provenance, for example the long lyrical phrases originally intended for the clarinet, the puffing arpeggios of the bassoon and the long pedal notes of the horn. In the very first “fanfare” phrase of the Grave it is easy to hear the sonorities of the wind group. After this stately opening, the Allegro is in 3/4 time with the theme first on the piano alone, and then on the strings – the setting of the piano against the group of strings is typical of the work as a whole. After the recapitulation, a brief cadenza on the piano leads an extended coda. The theme of the second movement, typically Mozartian, is gently embroidered to form a most lovely centrepiece to the work. The sunny Rondo is in 6/8 time, echoing with hunting calls, and again interrupted by a little cadenza for the piano. A pupil of Beethoven’s recalled how in a performance of the wind quintet Beethoven suddenly began to improvise at this point, taking the rondo as a theme, and entertaining the audience, though not his enraged fellow performers, for a considerable time.
Last ACMC Performance: Domus Piano Quartet, October 1991
Piano Quartet in E flat op. 47 Schumann (1810 – 1856)
Sostenuto assai – Allegro non troppo
Scherzo: Molto vivace
In 1842, while his beloved wife Clara was on a long concert tour, Schumann, alone and deeply melancholic, turned to the study of the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The inspiration of these produced in a few short months almost all of his own chamber works, the three quartets op. 41, the piano quintet op. 44, and the piano quartet, these two works for piano and strings being generally regarded as his chamber music masterpieces.
The first movement of the piano quartet begins with a 12-bar sostenuto, quiet questions from the piano, answered by the strings, which leads to the Allegro, marked sempre con molto sentimento, a comment which could be applied to the whole work. The Scherzo, full of excitement, has two trios, the first with a folk-song simplicity, and the second a series of syncopated chords, both interrupted by racing quavers. The slow movement has a bitter-sweet flavour, beginning with a long singing melody on the cello and much use of the interval of a seventh. The last movement is full of romantic bravura, bursting with ideas developed with a contrapuntal skill, which reminds us that Robert and Clara had spent happy hours together analyzing the fugues of Bach.
Last ACMC Performance: the Schubert Ensemble – March 2010
Sequenza Notturna Martin Butler (1960 – )
Martin Butler studied at the University of Manchester, the Royal Northern College of Music, and Princeton University, and is currently Professor of Music at the University of Sussex. His works, many the result of commissions, are widely performed and broadcast both in the UK and abroad.
Sequenza Notturna was his second work written for the Schubert Ensemble, who gave the first performance in 2003. As its title implies, the piece is nocturnal in character and is constructed from a sequence of episodes which serve gradually to expose a central monody (music in which the melody is confined to a single part), heard in its full climactic version only towards the end of the piece. There is a gradual accumulation of momentum built into the sequence, initiated by a ubiquitous and partially decorated stream of repeated notes on the viola, near the outset. Sequenza Notturna is dedicated to the memory of composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), with whom Butler had studied.
First ACMC Performance
Piano Quartet no. 1 in C minor op. 15 Fauré (1845 – 1924)
Allegro molto moderato
Scherzo: Allegro vivo
Like Schumann, in his early career Fauré made his mark as a composer of piano music and song, but chamber music was important to him throughout his life, providing him with the opportunity to combine the elegance and balance of classical form with his great gift for passionate lyricism. The C minor piano quartet was begun in 1877, an unhappy time for Fauré as his engagement to Marianne, daughter of the famous contralto Pauline Viardot, had been broken off. Its first performance was in 1880, and subsequently he completely revised the last movement.
Fauré’s solution to the technical difficulties of combining piano and strings is, as one commentator remarks, to treat the piano “in the manner of a harp”, providing accompanying arpeggios, chords and runs, to long singing lines on the strings. This is well-illustrated at the start of the first movement, when the strings proclaim the opening theme against sweeping syncopated chords on the piano. The scherzo, is a tour de force, alternating 6/8 and 2/4 rhythms in a rush of brilliant invention. The deeply moving adagio perhaps reflects the sadness of 1877, or an echo of the Requiem, parts of which were also composed then. The last movement memorably combines furious energy in the mazurka-like first subject with a more sensuous second subject, bringing the work to an exultant conclusion.
Last ACMC Performance: the Schubert Ensemble – March 2010