Faure Piano Quartet. Photo: Kasskara
The Faure Piano Quartet are superstars in Germany and England, having won awards for recordings of both classical and pop music. Despite having covered bands like N.E.R.D. and Feist, Elliott Smith, System of A Down, Pet Shop Boys and Steely Dan, among others, when they play classical music, you would think they had never played anything else. Their style encompasses precision, stillness and power. Their physical movements when playing on stage are like unbalanced washing machines one moment, and swans on water the next. The four good looking and stylish members of the Faure Quartet are Dirk Mommertz on piano, Erika Geldsetzer on violin, Sascha Foembling on viola and Konstantin Heidrich on cello, and their dynamic performance was a reminder to the audience why this music was the rock and roll of its time. The three pieces they selected to play were full of the all-over-the-place passions that are love and loss and death and life. All the pieces that night were written when the composers were young, (Suk was just seventeen at the time), and, like rock and roll, it was obviously music ripe with the passion and anguish of youth. It has been suggested that the slower, sad melodies of the third movement of the Faure adagio are the sound of Faure’s sorrow at the breaking off of his engagement with his fiance; and the Brahms quartet was most likely written for Clara Schumann, Robert Shumann’s wife, who was probably Brahms secret lover when he wrote this particular piece, although there is a mystery surrounding the whole story.
In a pre-concert lecture, University Professor Steve Roens explored the very particular history of the piano quartet, which, as it turns out, is an unusual arrangement. Most quartets are string quartets. Piano quartets are more rare, and in some measure, more like little symphonies. In the beginning, these quartets were made up of amateurs among the nobility playing small concerts for five or six people. Eventually, as the piano quartet gains validity and musical sophistication, young composers, including Mozart and Mendelssohn, among others, created new chamber music pieces for this unique arrangement, including the works played in that night’s concert. Even so, the number of pieces for the piano quartet remains small and exclusive, and even more exclusive the number of great piano quartets which might number fewer than twenty.
The piece by Brahms, written between 1856 and 1861, was a considerable and inventive achievement for the composer, who said he could feel Bach and Beethoven staring down the hallway of history at him as he tried to be true to himself, and the tradition before him. But, Brahms is also said to have written the piano part with Clara Schumann in mind. She played the piano in its first performance in 1861. When it was played again the next year, Brahms himself was at the keyboard. A truly difficult piece for all four instruments, it is symphonic in its scope and jaw dropping in its grandeur. I can’t think of any live shows I have heard in many years that left my head spinning as much as this performance of this piece.
The performance of Faure’s Piano Quartet in C Minor was a special treat for me, having grown up listening to Faure, somehow I have never heard any live until tonight. This quartet was one of two piano quartets Faure wrote. This first one was inspired by the slow death of his relationship and the end of his engagement, its emotionally ruinous and messy ending. The first sketches Faure made for this particular piece are from this time. Between 1876 and 1879 he wrote the piece in its entirety. Although he replaced the finale in 1883––the original finale is lost, destroyed by Faure near the end of his life. We can see the future of French music in this quartet, which was written after he had first heard Wagner, whose influence, even on French composers, cannot be overstated. Faure’s French contemporary, Ceasar Franc, and others, fell entirely under his spell. But Faure chose a different and in its own way, uniquely French path, creating a piece which is modern and impressionistic, a full ten years before such writing would be the norm when penned by Debussy or Ravel. Written in a style that voices the piano and strings very differently and in a minor key, it is none-the-less an optimistic piece, and in comparison to the Suk which preceded it, was a little more traditional, more romantic even––a swirling, lyrical set of movements.
Joseph Suk’s Piano Quartet in A minor, was written originally as an assignment when he was a student of Dvorak at the Prague Conservatory. When the second movement was performed for the class, Dvorak actually kissed the young composer and praised his skill with what translates as, “That’s perfect.” Young Suk made the quartet his Opus 1, thereby establishing himself a professional composer, in light of the reception. At seventeen, this, his first piece, became one of the primary concert pieces for the piano quartet. Rightly Dvorak’s favorite student (Suk later married Dvorak’s daughter), he was eventually honored with a prize from the Czech Academy, and a silver medal for one of his compositions at the 1932 Olympics, by the by (there was no gold medals awarded that year). The most contemporary piece of the evening, the quartet started out at a full gallop and proceeded to go bigger and better. The Adagio second movement had a particularly arresting cello melody which seemed to wander ever higher in the air, before returning again to the theme and to the grounding melody, which was a liquid tone, played as beautifully visually by Mr. Heidrich as it sounded in the room.
As musicians, the Faure Piano Quartet’s particularly appealing trait might be described as a ferocious tenderness: a complete understanding both of the pieces played, and of each other, allowing for no tentative notes, no second guessing. Every note confidently played and lived through with an endless supply of energy and surprise. At the end of the concert almost two hours later, I was as near the edge of my seat as I had been at the beginning. It gave me a new understanding for just how giant and majestic chamber music can be. It’s true, I’ve never heard a piano quartet before, but this was about the best live show I have seen since I don’t know when ... since Lynn Harrell in ‘95, since Nirvana in ‘93? If these guys were here for a second night, I’d buy everybody a ticket if I could. Really. We could talk about it afterwards. The playing, and the music played were a fast car speeding down a canyon road––moments of elation and then moments of quiet while the beauty fell around me like water. Nobody was threatened by my reckless driving though, as I was stage side and the action was all in my head. Even so, this concert was a thrilling ride.