Linton Artistic Directors, Jaime Laredo & Sharon Robinson return to perform noteworthy piano quartets alongside award-winning violinist, Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien, picked by the Boston Globe as one of the Superior Pianists of the Year.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) – Quartet for Piano & Strings No. 2 in E-flat Major, K. 493
It is rare to say that a composer created or defined a musical genre without some degree of exaggeration. Yet in the case of the piano quartet, Mozart truly holds the distinction of publishing the first known works for this instrumentation. In Mozart’s time, the piano trio was popular for its versatility – most works included string parts simple enough for even amateur players to perform as accompaniment – so the addition of the viola’s timbre seemed a natural expansion of the genre. It was not surprising, then, that the publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister commissioned Mozart to write three quartets in 1785. Yet after only one of these works was completed it was clear that the technical demand of Mozart’s compositions were well beyond the capabilities of most amateur musicians, and Hoffmeister cancelled the commission. Nevertheless, Mozart recognized the possibilities of the genre, and completed the Quartet for Piano & Strings No. 2 in E-flat Major in June of 1786.
The opening Allegro is in sonata form, which immediately invokes a sense of ease and effortlessness that disguises Mozart’s truly experimental workings within. As the Allegro reaches its development section, Mozart cycles through a bewildering nine keys before eventually returning to the opening theme and home key.
The central Larghetto spins the piano’s opening theme into rich and lyrical motifs that explore the possible combinations of the four instruments. Here, Mozart provides each instrument with an opportunity to shine as a soloist. The final rondo provides the pianist with passagework that would be at home in any piano concerto. As Mozart explores the interplay between the piano and strings he brings the quartet to an exuberant finish.
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) – Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 2 in G Major, Op. 77
Ravel composed his Violin Sonata No. 2 from 1923 to 1927. There is no clear reason behind this relatively slow process for the otherwise prolific composer, but he was by no means in a dry spell creatively. During the same time frame, he completed an opera and one of his most popular violin works, Tzigane. At least he managed to get some pedagogical mileage out of his struggle with the sonata – he used the occasion of his burning a completed movement, now lost forever, to demonstrate to one of his students that he could be as critical of his own efforts as he was of others’.
Heavily inspired by American jazz and blues, the sonata consists of three very different movements in contrasting styles. The first, a floating and airy allegretto is characterized by bare harmony and vague tonality. The opening theme is presented in sweeping phrases, with constantly shifting melodic arcs. The movement climaxes as the opening theme is deconstructed to form a repeating melodic pattern culminating in a frantic tremolo passage in the violin which gradually fades away through a variety of keys. Finally, a lyrical melody emerges from the chaos, returning the movement to the more serene atmosphere of the opening. Eventually the melodic line becomes so elongated that its focus fixes on rocking between only two notes before it fades entirely.
The second movement, unusually titled ‘blues’, begins with solo pizzicato chords. The piano plays along before providing subversive harmonic accompaniment. The primary melody emerges with a bluesy quality full of syncopated rhythms, slides, and other stylistic elements. The blues melody in the violin part is joined by playful counter-melodies in the piano, but the piano later takes over almost entirely as the violin assumes an accompanying role with virtuosic pizzicato chords. When the violin later interrupts with the blues melody it has become a screaming fortissimo rather than the quiet nostalgia of its first statement. After another pizzicato violin section with piano melody, the cacophony abruptly ends, and the quiet, soulful melody returns, this time with phrases exchanged between violin and piano.
The final movement presents another contrast, beginning with a series of rhythmic patterns which gradually get faster and faster until a tempo is eventually settled upon and the relentless progress of the Perpetuum mobile begins. The driving tension of the movement does not resolve until the very end, when after a non-stop flow of virtuosic passagework, a repeated ostinato melody emerges played in octaves. This melody goes through a variety of patterns as it reaches a climax, finally resolving in a hammered repetition of the final pattern.
Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924) – Quartet for Piano & Strings No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 15
Fauré had a distinct musical personality, but his music is unmistakably French with a strong kinship to both the suave Romanticism of Franck and the cool sensuality of Debussy. It is particularly compelling to realize that Fauré’s first piano quartet predates Debussy and Ravel’s first mature works by ten and twenty years respectively. Along with the traditional clarity, poetry and restraint of the French tradition preceding it, Fauré’s music sounds refreshingly and presciently modern.
Fauré’s strongly rhythmic opening theme is announced immediately by the strings, seconded by sweeping syncopated chords from the piano. The second subject is in short graceful phrases but is rather overwhelmed by the powerful first theme. The passion of this movement is balanced by the very French elegance of the Scherzo. The sophisticated banter of the piano is set up against stylish pizzicato strings, leading to razor-sharp exchanges of melodic exclamations.
The Scherzo presents with the dual personality of a march and a waltz with a steady perpetual motion gently animating the entire construction. A steady “groove” emerges from a combination of an obstinate bass pattern and a scurrying melodic figure. Over time, the strings introduce a much more languid melody that stretches with a certain wryness. The trio is surprisingly similar to the Scherzo musically, but it begins on the dominant and seems to invert aspects of the bass, melody and texture for an “inside-out” and “upside-down” effect.
The majestic Adagio opens with an elegiac theme that is reflective and somewhat grave. It gathers momentum, reaching with a more emphatic yearning that relaxes again into a seeming café song whose languorous melancholy savors its own sorrow fondly. As the piano spins into wide ranging arpeggios the elegy returns and sinks deeply into the lower strings. Fauré concludes with a rhythmic tour de force that begins with a storm in a minor key and sweeps through a kaleidoscope of key changes before driving to a sparkling finish awash in color and grand cadences.