In our Musician Notes video series, Robert Cassidy, pianist, provides insight for Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, Opus 47 and Brahm’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, Opus 25.

The concert excerpts are from Piano Quartets, Sunday, September 15, 2019, Community Presbyterian Church of Cambria. The concert featured Robert Cassidy, piano, Maurice Skylar, violin, Andrew Grishaw, viola, and Hilary Clark, cello.

Additional program notes provided by Eric Bromberger.

Robert Schumann’s marriage on September 12, 1840, to the young piano virtuosa Clara Wieck, a match that had been bitterly opposed by her father, brought joy to the young couple, and it also marked the beginning of the most productive three years of the composer’s career.  From the first year of their marriage came a great outpouring of song, from 1841 came symphonic works, and in 1842 Schumann turned to chamber music.  He quickly wrote three string quartets that summer, then the Piano Quintet in October.  Working at white heat and assailed by “constant fearful sleepless nights,” Schumann pressed on to complete the Piano Quartet at the end of November.

The Quartet has always been overshadowed by the Quintet, one of Schumann’s greatest chamber works, but this is a strong work in its own right.  It is one of the finest of all piano quartets – a form that presents composers with numerous problems of voicing, texture, and the balance between piano and strings – and its slow movement is one of the glories of chamber music.  The Quartet opens with a slow introduction, marked Sostenuto assai (“Very sustained”).  The main section of the movement, Allegro ma non tanto, leaps out brightly on four sharp chords, and Schumann gives some idea of his conception of this music in his marking sempre con molto sentimento.  The second subject is a big singing tune for cello, and Schumann develops both themes across the span of this sonata-form movement.   The very brief Scherzo: Molto vivace hurries along its steady pulse; Schumann offers two trio sections, both related thematically to the scherzo itself.

Like Mozart and Beethoven before him, Brahms did not make the move to Vienna all at once.  From his native Hamburg, he paid a number of visits before moving to that fabled city in the early 1860s, when he was in his late twenties.  The Piano Quartet in G Minor was among the pieces Brahms used to introduce himself to Vienna.  Composed between 1857 and 1861, it had already been performed in Hamburg, with Clara Schumann at the piano.  Reaction in Vienna was mixed; some critics were enthusiastic, but one called the quartet “an offense against the laws of style.”  Exactly what he meant by that is unclear, for already evident in this music is the wonderful Brahmsian nobility, particularly in the sober, serious first movement.  The Quartet in G Minor is also big music–not just in its length, but in its air of gravity.  And the wonderful gypsy finale is fired by Brahms’ lifelong passion for Hungarian music.

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