- Quartet in C minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 1 (1822)
Wu Qian, piano • Chad Hoopes, violin • Paul Neubauer, viola • Gary Hoffman, cello
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Felix Mendelssohn (Hamburg, 1809 – Leipzig, 1847)
Mendelssohn was a child prodigy. He may have been one of the most impressive musical prodigies who ever lived, maybe even better than Mozart. His young success is all the more remarkable because, unlike many child prodigies, he didn’t come from a musical family. His grandfather was the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and his father, Abraham, was a successful banker first in Hamburg then Berlin. Also unlike many prodigies, Felix received a first rate general education with a strong grounding in the classics, including reading Shakespeare in German translation. His music education was likewise classically oriented. With his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, he studied the music of past great composers like Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Handel. Zelter also led the Singakademie, which performed sacred vocal works by composers from the 18th century and earlier. Mendelssohn sang in the ensemble beginning at age 11 and was introduced to many older works that were otherwise not publicly performed.
The quartet is incredibly advanced for a composer who was barely a teenager when it was written.
By age 13, Mendelssohn had already written a wide variety of works but he decided to make his public composition debut with this piano quartet. He may have intended it as a tribute to Mozart, who had famously written two of them, or as a way of staying out of Beethoven’s shadow as he didn’t write any mature piano quartets. But in any case, the quartet is incredibly advanced for a composer who was barely a teenager when it was written. In the stormy key of C minor, the first movement begins almost hesitantly in the strings before launching into a full Classical-style sonata form. The second movement, a beautiful chordal ballad, has a fascinating episode where each string instrument enters in turn until the violin comes in on a gorgeously dissonant C-flat. The C minor scherzo features sparkling piano runs around a trio for viola, cello, and piano left hand. The last movement revisits the first movement with the same form and similar first theme, but in a faster, more impetuous tempo to end this remarkable debut by one of the most precocious composers of the 19th century.
Richard Strauss (Munich, 1864 - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 1949)
Strauss wrote this early piano quartet at 20 years old when he was still absorbing new influences and finding his mature voice. His years of experimentation would eventually lead to a focus on operas and tone poems, but first he wrote an impressive body of chamber music. His two piano trios, string quartet, cello sonata, and other chamber works were followed by this piano quartet. It came at a time of intense discovery of all the musical styles around him in Romantic Germany. Strauss had a somewhat old-fashioned musical upbringing because his father, a horn player, disliked all modern music (even though, as a member of the Munich Court Orchestra, he was acquainted with it). So, naturally, the young adult Strauss was enamored with new music. His first obsession was Brahms, perhaps because the older composer considered his music a continuation of the German tradition. Strauss would soon move on and develop a much more lasting attachment with Wagner’s music that would set the course for the rest of his life.
Strauss composed the piano quartet in 1884 at the height of his fascination with Brahms. He was assimilating Brahms’ music at rapid speed, weaving it into his own youthful, cultivated style. The first movement, in particular, was written under Brahms’ spell, with large-scale dramatic sweep, and firm control over the many themes and their development. But fiery flashes, starting right in the sixth measure, are all Strauss. The two middle movements are a heavy-yet-skittering scherzo and a touching slow movement that moves from minor to major. The final movement is another epic, long-form essay in C minor that is more intricately wrought that the rest of the piece; its independent lines may recall Schumann. The quartet was well received—Strauss premiered it with members of the Halír Quartet on December 8, 1885, and it won a prize for best piano quartet from the Berlin Tonkünstler Verein.
Notes by Laura Keller, CMS Editorial Manager
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