Mendelssohn: Piano Quartet No. 3 in B minor, Op. 3 (1824-25, 32 minutes)

Mendelssohn completed this work in January 1825, just before his sixteenth birthday. He dedicated it to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famous German literary icon, who was a semi-regular visitor at the Mendelssohn home. This Quartet was a pivotal work for Mendelssohn. Two months after its completion, Mendelssohn’s father Abraham, a banker who disliked the idea of a musical career for his son, agreed to allow Felix to pursue that career, but only on the condition that his talent be recognized by significant music professionals. Felix and his father paid a visit to the Paris Conservatoire, where the present Quartet was played through by a group including the school’s famous director, Luigi Cherubini, and the concertmaster of the Paris Opera, Pierre Baillot. These professionals were won over, and after the performance, Baillot simply rose and gave the young composer a hug.

Unaccompanied piano starts the first movement, soon joined by the strings in a gesture colored by gentle dissonances. The piano likewise introduces the second theme. Both ideas are developed. The Andante second movement moves at its own leisurely pace, with some surprising turns of harmony. After a large-scale Scherzo whose lightness recalls the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, virtuoso piano writing characterizes the lively fourth movement, with a reprise of an idea from the first movement near the end.

Martinů: String Sextet (1932, 15 minutes)

Around 1929, after focusing on operas, ballets, and other stage works for a time, Bohuslav Martinů turned his attention to chamber music, producing 22 such works in a three year period. One of them, the String Sextet (as opposed to another of his Sextets from the same period, scored for piano and winds), was written in just one week, May 20-27 of 1932. In America, where Martinů’s music was just becoming known, the String Sextet won the 1932 Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Prize, chosen from 145 works submitted from all over the world. The first movement begins slowly but soon launches into an energetic, rhythmically lively Allegro poco moderato. The second movement is a composite, two statements of a slow, contrapuntal song framing a lively Scherzo central section. The third movement shares its tempo, and mood, with the main body of the opening movement, and brings the work to a lively conclusion.

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1864, 40 minutes)

Brahms had a rather hard time bringing the F minor Piano Quintet to fruition. In 1861-62 he composed a string quintet in F minor, taking inspiration from Schubert’s great Quintet in C major (even using the second cello that Schubert employed). But his good friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, found the work too weighty for just strings and suggested rearranging it for piano. Brahms then created an arrangement for two pianos, but this time it was another friend, Clara Schumann, who felt the work lacked warmth with the strings removed. So finally, in the fall of 1864, Brahms created the third and final version of the work for piano and string quartet.

High strings in octaves introduce the first theme of the opening Allegro non troppo. The piano immediately counters with a more forceful idea. These two are developed, with other transitional ideas also making their way into the mix. A recapitulation of the opening themes closes this large-scale movement. The tender, calm second movement only occasionally reaches into more harmonically unstable material. Dark cello pizzicati open the third movement, an Allegro that moves quickly from major mode to minor, from 6/8 to 2/4 time, and from restraint to more forceful material, including an almost heroic march theme. After an ominous beginning, a quiet theme with rather nervous accompaniment starts off the final movement. The first violin announces a second theme, and the two main melodies, after being worked over, mix with ideas from the first three movements in a scintillating coda.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison