Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70/2 (1808, 30 minutes)
Beethoven composed the two Op. 70 Trios in the same year as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. They are dedicated to Countess Marie Erdödy, on whose estate the composer was then living. She hosted their first performance in December 1808. With its “Ghost” nickname and dramatic nature, Op. 70/1 has probably garnered a bit more attention than its successor. As Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood put it, “After the Ghost, the E-flat Trio, op. 70, no. 2, turns from the demonic to the human.”
The first movement opens with a mournful slow introduction, led first by the cello, then imitated by the violin and piano. When the tempo quickens, Beethoven introduces two themes, the first of which dominates the subsequent development, which travels through a variety of keys. The theme from the slow introduction also makes occasional appearances, almost in the manner of storm clouds making fleeting appearances. As Beethoven will sometimes do (for instance in the Eighth Symphony), this Trio doesn’t have a proper slow movement. Instead we have a “double” theme-and-variations, based on two themes and at a moderate Allegretto tempo. The third movement is a waltz-like Scherzo, with two appearances of the contrasting trio section, and tends less to the propulsive and more to the lyrical than Beethoven typically does in such movements. Robust and virtuosic, the Finale starts with the piano, which remains in the lead through most of this exciting movement.
Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45 (1885-86, 34 minutes)
In the early part of his career, Fauré made his living as an organist. His compositions of the time were mostly songs. Chamber music wasn’t a priority for him, largely due to the lack of opportunities for performance – especially within France, where opera remained king. This changed in 1871, when Camille Saint-Saëns (with the help of many others, including Fauré, Cesar Franck, and Jules Massenet) started the Société Nationale du musique (National Music Society) specifically to perform works by young French composers. Suddenly chamber music became a priority with these composers, and Fauré began to produce a succession of chamber music masterpieces.
Practically nothing is known about the circumstances of the composition of the Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, aside from the fact that it was premiered in a concert of the Société Nationale on January 22, 1887, with Fauré at the piano. Its first movement begins with a bold unison string theme over rustling piano arpeggios. The mood briefly calms as the viola introduces a new theme, but as a whole this ambitious movement maintains its momentum and energy, which continues to build in the short, propulsive and vehement second movement. The slow movement is serene and graceful, with a suggestion of distant tolling bells in one episode (perhaps Fauré’s reminiscence of the bells he heard as a youth in the garden of his family’s home in Cadirac). Aaron Copland wrote of this movement in 1924: “Its beauty is truly classic if we define classicism as intensity on a background of calm.” The purposeful energy of the first movement returns in the closing Allegro molto, with its swirling string melodies and nimble piano writing.
Suk: Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 1 (1891, 20 minutes)
The Czech composer Josef Suk is remembered mostly because of his connection with Antonín Dvořák: Suk studied with Dvořák at the Prague Conservatory, and in 1898 married his daughter Otilie. Suk served as the second violinist of the famed Czech Quartet for forty years, but also composed a great deal of music. His early works – such as his best-loved composition, the Serenade for Strings, Op. 6 – are in a Romantic style that owes much to Dvořák’s tutelage. But after the deaths of Dvořák in 1904 and Otilie the following year, Suk’s compositions grew darker and more introspective.
The Piano Quartet in A minor clearly falls into the early period. Composed while Suk was a student at the Prague Conservatory, the Quartet served as his graduate thesis. The forceful opening movement was written during an Easter holiday in Suk’s hometown of Krecovice, shortly after he had begun his studies with Dvořák. The elder composer thought highly of the soulful Adagio, which had been started during that same vacation, encouraging Suk to complete it and the rousing Allegro con fuoco finale.
Program Notes by Chris Morrison