Piano Quartet in g minor, K478 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1765-1791)
Quintet in C Major, D956 Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Notes on the Program
Mozart: Piano Quartet in g minor
Relatively few works for piano quartet, that ensemble consisting of piano and three strings (usually violin, viola, and cello), have made their way into the standard chamber music repertoire. Except for the two piano quartets of Mozart, nearly all the commonly heard works of this type—including those of Schumann, Brahms, Dvorák, and Fauré—date from the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century. A surprisingly large number of what may loosely be termed keyboard quartets preceded those of Mozart, however, as from the middle of the eighteenth century, keyboard sonatas with accompanying pairs of violins and supporting bass parts were common. Elements of the keyboard concerto may be seen in many other early quartets, including those of J. C. Bach in which the keyboard instrument alternates between a continuo function and a true solo role. Mozart’s piano quartets have fully written-out keyboard parts (in contrast to works by earlier composers where the accompaniment for the keyboard was usually written as figured bass parts, employing the musical shorthand by which the keyboard player is given a simple bass line with numbers below it indicating harmonies to be improvised or "realized" at sight) but retain much of the concerto’s solo-tutti contrast. Not at all surprisingly, they represent a creative pinnacle, not only within the Classical era but for the genre as a whole.
The problems of blend and balance besetting the composer who elects to try his hand at chamber ensembles involving piano and multiple strings (ranging from simple piano trios to quintets) are rather daunting, for the essential differences in the production of tone and in the dynamic capabilities of the instruments involved engender, more often than not, a sense of friendly antagonism amongst the performers of such works. This competitive spirit is fueled by the sheer immensity of the modern grand piano, and even through the nearly universal twentieth-century practice of stringing violin-family instruments in steel has enabled the string group to muster more volume, real clarity remains all too often an elusive goal.
If this applies to the piano quartets of Brahms, how much more true it is of those of Mozart! On one hand, the cleanliness of Mozart’s textures and harmonic vocabulary are inherently less turgid than those found in similar compositions of the Romantic school. In modern-instrument performances of these pieces, however, the pianist can easily come to feel frustrated, as he must keep in check the volume of his instrument while simultaneously sensing that its potential for extremes of range is also limited. The string players may feel somewhat at a loss as to how to project their parts, with the unfortunately result that they may misguidedly expend a great deal of energy striving to bring to the fore structurally important but melodically insignificant accompanimental figures. The finest modern performances, of course, avoid these pitfalls, but they still impart the impression that Mozart’s quartets partake more of the concitato ("agitated") than of the concertato tradition. Surveying Mozart’s chamber music at the time of the Mozart bicentennial of 1956, the British musicologist Hans Keller tacitly acknowledged this fact of modern concert life, declaring that it was "quite impossible to re-establish the physical conditions of sound to which Mozart was used" (this in the days before authentic-instrument performance of Classical period works was thought widely possible or even desirable). Nevertheless, Keller recognized that Mozart’s piano quartets are "the only absolutely perfect, great, deep masterpieces of their problematic genre . . . [the g minor work] furnishes conclusive proof, more than any other single masterpiece of his, that Mozart’s was the only true omniscient ear of which we know."
These internal balance problems are to a large extent nullified when the piano quartets are performed on period instruments, particularly as regards the fortepiano part. Playing Mozart’s music (or that of Haydn or the young Beethoven) on such a fortepiano, one is immediately struck by the fact that these composers were giants of the keyboard, utilizing the entire range of the instruments at their disposal, effectively exploiting the color variations of the different registers, and consistently experimenting with the possibilities the relatively new instrument had to offer. The fortepiano had come on the scene in response to a demand for a keyboard instrument that was at once sufficiently loud to be used in combination with other instruments or with the voice and also capable of rendering the dynamic gradations previously possible only on the clavichord: it suited perfectly the music of the Viennese Classical school. Seen in this light, the avid appetite of the strong amateur market for new piano compositions seems quite natural.
The instigation of Mozart’s piano quartets, which were initially meant to appeal to just this public, appears to have come from Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812), his friend and brother Mason. Hoffmeister was a prolific and popular, if somewhat superficial, composer in his own right. At the beginning of 1784, after some initial forays into the world of music publication, then still in its infancy in Vienna, he disclosed plans to print all of his own works. By August of the following year, he had announced an ambitious series of chamber and orchestral pieces by Haydn, Mozart, Vanhal, Playel, Albrechtsberger, Ordonez, and others. Not all of these projected editions materialized, and Hoffmeister’s initial publication schedules often proved hopelessly optimistic, but his musical judgements were sound, and his catalogue eventually included works of Clementi, E. A. Förster, Süssmayr, and Beethoven, in addition to those composers listed above. Notwithstanding the fact that he was unresponsive to most commercial opportunities, Hoffmeister’s business in Vienna was prosperous enough to allow him to found, with one Ambrosious Kühnel, the Bureau de Musique in Leipzig, which eventually became the basis for the firm of C. F. Peters, still one of the most important music publishing houses in the world.
It appears that Hoffmeister suggested to Mozart a series of three piano quartets. Uncharacteristically, Mozart chose to begin the cycle with a work in the minor mode, selecting g minor, which held for him many of the same serious connotations c minor was to hold for Beethoven. The manuscript for K478 bears the inscription "Vienna, 16 October 1785," although Mozart entered it in his composition catalogue as a product of July of that year. It was published by Hoffmeister in December with the title "Quatuor pour le Clavecin, ou Forte Piano, Violon, Tallie [sic] et Basse Composé par Mr. Wolf. Amad. Mozart." The inclusion of harpsichord (clavecin) in the title was probably simply a publisher’s ploy to make the work attractive to a wider audience: the composer’s own preference, indicated by his dynamic markings would certainly have been for the fortepiano. Mozart’s early nineteenth-century biographer Georg Nikolaus Nissen reported that Hoffmeister, worried that the g minor quartet had proven too difficult to have much popular appeal, released Mozart from his contractual obligation to supply two other works. (The quartet in E-flat Major, K493, completed on 3 June 1786, was consequently published by the firm of Artaria.)
Taken together, the two piano quartets form one of the complementary major-minor mode pairs met with rather frequently in Mozart’s oeuvre. The intensity of K478’s g minor opening is perfectly foiled by the cheeriness of the E-flat quartet’s Allegro, which reflects Mozart’s happiness during the initial run of The Marriage of Figaro at the Vienna Burgtheater. Each of the slow movements presents a different facet of Mozart’s lyricism, seductive but never cloying, and the finales capture his wit and good humor as he might himself have presented them in his own keyboard performances.
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major
The String Quintet in C Major D956 is one of the most significant chamber music works ever written and represents a high point in Schubert’s œuvre. Deviating from the classical quintet instrumentation (two violins, two violas, cello), it is written for two violins, a viola and two cellos. Its grand design is reminiscent of that of Schubert’s Great C Major symphony, recalling as well the composer’s own statement that he wanted to "pave the way to the great symphonic form" in his chamber music. The Quintet was probably written in the year of Schubert’s death, 1828, but this is uncertain. The autograph manuscript has been lost, and neither the composer nor his friends and acquaintances mentioned the existence of the composition in diaries or letters. There is something mysterious about the Quintet, which was presumably not performed in Schubert’s lifetime.
It must have been clear to the audience at the first Viennese performance in 1850 that Schubert was breaking new ground with this powerful and enigmatic composition. The fullness of sound, which at various points creates the effect of a full orchestra, had led to the speculation that this could be the quintet version of a Schubert symphony. One of the greatest experts on Schubert, Johannes Brahms, was right to dispute this. Nevertheless, the work shows a tendency to go beyond the usual boundaries of chamber music.
The music is full of extreme contrasts of expression. Its dynamic range extends from the softest to the loudest possible sounds; the slowest of all Schubert’s slow movements, the Adagio, is followed by his fastest Scherzo. The tonality of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, fluctuates at the beginning between C Major and c minor, and the elegiacally colored opening melody shows some similarities to Schubert’s settings of Heine’s poems "Die Stadt" (The Town) and "Am Meer" (By the Sea) from "Schwanengesang". The same melodic phrase heard in this opening melody is also heard in the song "Am Meer", at the words "…fielen die Tränen nieder" (the tears fell). As in Schubert’s last songs setting verses by Heinrich Heine, the wordless singing here breaks into a lamentation of despair. The development section is dominated throughout by the short crying motif reminiscent of the child’s cry of fear in Schubert’s "Erikönig". At the end of the first movement, after all this demonic restlessness, lyrical, soothing strains triumph.
The second movement, Adagio, with its multi-faceted texture and seemingly endless cantilena in the middle parts, has been interpreted as expressing a longing for death. The beginning of the cantilena in the middle voices refers to the place in the piano part of Schubert’s song "Der Tod und das Mädchen". The quotation could be regarded as the motto of this unique Adagio, and in this sense the wild motion of the middle section in f minor could be interpreted as the expression of mortal fear. The middle section creates the impression of a dramatic disruption of the peacefully entranced, quietly melancholic singing before it and itself ends in agony: after an apprehensive faltering, as if the music had ceased to breathe, the manner in which it finds its way back to the consoling cantilena is one of the most moving transitions in all classical music. The catastrophe which has just taken place continues to exert an effect on the Adagio which now resumes: the paraphrases of the middle voices seem like ghostly reminiscences of the fluctuating rhythm of the f minor section. Shortly before the end, the Adagio suffers a short but violent relapse into the state of mortal fear—in a frightened outburst in f minor, which makes the comforting close of the movement seem deceptive.
Schubert was very fond of thematic associations and allusions. In the Quintet (as in the Piano Sonata in A Major D959), the close of the slow movement and the beginning of the Scherzo are motivically related to one another: extremes meet. The tempestuous Scherzo does not constantly maintain its powerfully intoned major sonorities; minor dissonances threaten to paralyze its light-footed, exuberant zest.
Schubert composed the Trio of the Scherzo in an unprecedentedly novel way. Instead of a country dance in the style of a "Ländler", which he usually preferred, he composed a slow Trio in 4/4 time which alternates in a singular way between major and minor sonorities. In great contrast to the brightness and speed of the Presto dance, a kind of funeral march is heard.
The Finale begins in a dance-like way with a syncopated theme in c minor of Hungarian character and only reaches C Major by roundabout routes. This movement is characterized by a restlessness that seeks peace in quiet tones. Once more, the cellos join together in a cantilena duet, with the mood of a cheerfully buoyant and at the same time slightly melancholic song. After the tension in the Finale has been heightened in a series of seemingly carefree accelerations of tempo, the climax is reached at its loudest point in an almost symphonic outbreak of pain reminiscent of the corresponding moment in Schubert’s setting of Heine’s "Der Doppelgänger". This ambivalent work rushes towards its close as if an abyss were opening up a close which can be called tragic, violently shattering all previous consoling and soothing hopes and making one think of the "plunge into the River Lethe" for which Schubert had expressed longing in his poem "Mein Gebet" (My Prayer).
MARILYN McDONALD has toured world-wide as a founding member of the Castle Trio, the Smithson String Quartet, the Axelrod Quartet, the Oberlin Baroque Ensemble, and Ensemble Pierrot, a group specializing in contemporary music. She has appeared as recitalist and soloist with orchestras throughout the United States and is concertmaster of the Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra. Her appearances reflect her versatility: soloist with the Milwaukee and Omaha symphonies, concerts at the Caramoor Festival, Yale University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alice Tully Hall, the Library of Congress, the Mostly Mozart Festival, and the Utrecht Festival, among others. Professor of Violin at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and a faculty member of the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute and the Colorado College Summer Conservatory and Festival, she has gained an international reputation as an outstanding pedagogue of both baroque and modern violin. Ms. McDonald has recorded for Vox, the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, Gasparo, Decca, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, and Virgin Classics.
Cellist CATHARINA MEINTS is a thirty year veteran of the Cleveland Orchestra,
which she joined after serving in the National Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber
Symphony of Philadelphia, and the Rochester Philharmonic. She is also one of
this country's leading exponents of the viola da gamba, having made numerous
recordings of the virtuoso solo and consort literature for that instrument on
the Cambridge, Vox, Gasparo, Dorian, and Nonesuch labels. With her husband James
Caldwell, she founded the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute and the Oberlin
Consort of Viols in 1971. The collection of antique viols assembled by Meints
and Caldwell is one of the finest in the world, and has inspired Meints to
devise a performance piece entitled The Amber Viol, which illustrates the
history of the instrument as exemplified by the "life" of her 1680
Joachim Tielke bass viol. Meints is a prominent educator, teaching viola da
gamba and cello at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (where she performs as a
member of the Oberlin Baroque Ensemble), the Cleveland Institute of Music, and
Case Western Reserve University.
Violinist IAN SWENSEN is one of the few musicians to have been awarded top
prize in both the International Violin Competition and the Chamber Music
Competition (as first violinist of the Meliora String Quartet) of the Walter W.
Naumberg Foundation. A native of New York, Mr. Swensen came from a musically
gifted family of Norwegian and Japanese-Hawaiian descent. He received his
training at The Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay and at the Eastman School of
Music with Donald Weilerstein. Mr. Swensen has been on the faculties at Eastman,
Florida State University, the Oberlin Conservatory, and now teaches at the San
Francisco Conservatory of Music where he has students from ten countries.
Swensen, who has appeared in recital in such venues as Lincoln Center, the
Library of Congress, and the Corcoran Gallery, has been featured soloist with
the Boston Symphony, The Toulouse Symphony of France, the Boston Pops, the Longy
Chamber Orchestra, the Santa Rosa and Oakland Symphonies, the Pro Musica Chamber
Orchestra, and the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra.
This concert is made possible in part by a grant from the City of Houston and Harris County through the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County