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Manchester music reviews

Fauré Piano Quartet

Fauré Piano Quartet @ St George's Hall

Reviewed by Denis Joe February 2011

Dirk Mommerrtz Piano
Erika Geldsetzer Violin
Sascha Froembling Viola
Konstanin Heidrich Cello

Mozart - Piano Quartet in G minor K478
Mahler - Quartet Movement in A minor
Mozart - Piano Quartet in Eb major K493


One way at looking at classical music (that umbrella tag for art/composed music) is to see the music as a discussion, debate or argument. The latter view is particularly noticeable in concertos, where the solo instrument (or group of instruments) is pitted against the orchestra. It is as if what we are experiencing is the individual finding their way in society with the orchestra perceived as the collective.


A dialogue can also be clearly heard in chamber music, where the instrumental forces are smaller. The intimacy of chamber music creates a dialectic of the individual voices at once asserting themselves whilst at the same time, working, ūnĭversus, to create a performance. The mark of success for any ensemble is to pull this off convincingly, and the Fauré Piano Quartet certainly managed this with panache and skill in this concert.


The musicians founded the Fauré Quartet in 1995 taking this name out of appreciation for the composer's two piano quartet pieces. It did not take the quartet long to win top prizes and awards such as the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis and the Parkhouse Award in Great Britain. They have recently received the Echo Klassik Prize twice in a row, the only ensemble in history to do so.


What the group achieved in this performance was to illustrate just how inspired and fresh the two Mozart pieces are, even though they date from 1787.  Cast in the dramatic key of G minor, the first quartet cannot be said to be easy listening. The opening piano chords tell us that this is not simply entertainment but a serious statement. In this allegro there is a concerto feeling, with the piano, seemingly in a state of agitation with the other instruments and as we reach the end of this movement each instrument seems to defiantly declare its position.


The andante opens with the most beautifully imagined of music. The piano leads us into a realm of calm, where it and the violin dominate.  For me this is one of Mozart’s most captivating pieces of music and, when all the instruments take up the music, four minutes into the andante, it is not hard to just close your eyes and realise that the world is such a heavenly place.


I couldn’t help remembering Lenin’s words on Beethoven's Appassionata “Wonderful, immortal music. I always think, with perhaps a naive, childish pride, how can man create such wonders?"


The final movement rondo (allegro), finds a more contented feeling, almost as if the angst of the opening movement had been forgotten and for the first 4m 30 secs, there is still a debate but one that does not seem so much like a fight and is more a gentlemanly dispute. But within the movement voices are raised. The piano opens the movement with a theme that suggests it has found an area of agreement and the bow-stringed instruments take up the theme and by the close there is a resolution.


Mozart received a commission for three quartets in 1785 from the publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. Hoffmeister thought this first quartet was too difficult and that the public would not buy it, so he released Mozart from the obligation of completing the set.


A report of 1788, told of a concert given by amateur musicians, whilst praising Mozart’s intentions it went on to say:

"[as performed by amateurs] it could not please: everybody yawned with boredom over the incomprehensible tintamarre of four instruments which did not keep together for four bars on end, and whose senseless concentus never allowed any unity of feeling; but it had to please, it had to be praised! ... what a difference when this much-advertised work of art is performed with the highest degree of accuracy by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully."

Even though Mozart was released from his obligation he did go on to compose another Piano Quarter a year later.


Mozart’s Piano Quartet in Eb major K493 opens with a tutti effect that has the feeling of an orchestra. It does not have the sonorous feeling of the opening of the first Piano Quartet, the allegro draws us in, teasingly. There is concord amongst the instruments in this movement, which contrasts greatly with its predecessor, with each instrument taking up the theme, as if examining an object before commenting.  About halfway through the movement the listener can discern a conflict but nothing like the aggression of the first quartet. By the end of the movement there a strong sense of unity as the piano and violin call on the cello and viola for confirmation. The movement closes with all four instruments affirming the point.


St Georges HallThe second movement, Larghetto, has a strong concerto feel to it with the piano, gently, suggesting itself to the others who respond with an equal calm. There is none of the raw emotion of the predecessor’s andante.


In the final movement, allegretto, the sense of unity is broken. The piano seems to be playing against the other instrument; there is no feeling of agreement, even when the opening chords of the piano are repeated, about two minutes into the movement, by the other players. The string trio exert their independence with some dazzling solos that seem to further aggravate the piano. By the end the piano plays the opening chords which are repeated by the trio. We are left with a feeling that the players have ‘agreed to disagree’.


Though a year separates the composition of these two Piano Quartets, there is a feeling that the first is a product of a more youthful and bolshie young man whereas the second feels more controlled. And maybe the reason for this is because the instrumental line-up was one that was new to the audience. It would be easy to say that all Mozart did, when composing the Piano Quartets, was simply to take the form of Haydn’s string trios and add a piano. But the impact of the writing suggests that Mozart had grander ideas for this. Chamber music seemed to always have a restrained feel to it and whilst Mozart applied recognised structures to these pieces the effect comes over as more orchestral than the divertimento intimacy of what had gone before. Another reason for the grandness of these pieces is that the use of harpsichord was being supplanted by the piano forte, that allowed for a more liberated sound.


The composer's admiration for Stein's instruments is made clear in a letter which he wrote to his father from Augsburg in October 1777.

“In whatever way I touch the keys the tone is always even.  It never jars, it is never stronger or weaker or entirely absent; . . . his [Stein's] instruments have this special advantage over others that they are made with an escape action.  Only one maker in a hundred bothers about this.”
[quoted in The Piano Trio Its History, Technique, and repertoire  Basil Smallman p.3]

It is commonplace to see Mozart as a genius. The thought that this man, in such a short lifespan, created so much, is something to contemplate with awe. But greatness should not be measured in quantity and we should apply the term ‘genius’ in a more constrained manner.


In these two quartets (Mozart did not return to that instrumental line-up again) it is possible to understand what it is that makes the label of ‘genius’ so applicable.  If these two pieces were all that the composer wrote, his genius could still be appreciated. It is not simply that the music is so exhilarating - though that alone is justification enough - but that Mozart saw beyond the limits of his own time: he was prepared to take risks; he had enough self–assuredness to be able to throw down the gauntlet to his peers and set a standard for future composers to emulate.


Mahler’s Quartet Movement in A minor was a strange choice to accompany the Mozart Quartets. Mahler wrote it as a student and it is said that, apart from a few sketches of a scherzo he left it unfinished. It is rarely heard and there are only a handful of recordings. I know the piece from a recording by The Avery Ensemble, which includes a rather silly version of the scherzo scored by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke. I never thought too highly of the piece.  It seemed to me to be a piece of juvenilia with a nod to Brahms. However the Fauré Piano Quartet’s interpretation of it forced me to see it in a new light.


The opening bars on the piano are hesitant. The violin then takes up the melody as the cello and viola come in almost apologetically.


The piece would have made a better violin sonata as the music works the bass of the piano against the shrill of the violin. These sounds dominate the movement and the viola and cello play no real role. Whilst the piece still sounded as inspired by Brahms (his Piano Quartet No. 1, in particular) the Fauré Piano Quartet’s managed to make the piece sound special. Erika Geldsetzer attacked her violin and 7 minutes into the piece (which is around 12 minutes long) she was given a short but thrilling solo, which screamed through St Georges Hall and I did hear some audience members gasp.


It says much for their skill and dedication that the Fauré Piano Quartet could make something special out of this movement. It was as if they were trying to make us hear the future Mahler, whose symphonies would shock and enthral the world of music, and whose power few composers, since, have matched.


The audience were delighted and returning to the stage the Fauré Piano Quartet treated us to an encore of the adagio from Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet No.2 in F minor. It was almost like a lullaby to send us to the comfort of our homes.

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