Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F, D. 487 Franz Schubert (b. Vienna, 1797; d. there, 1828)

Schubert’s piano chamber music includes two monumental trios and the charming “Trout” Quintet for piano and “low quartet,” as an ensemble of one of each string instrument is now called. But he wrote only one piano quartet, the 1816 Adagio and Rondo Concertante.

When you see the word concertante in a title, pay attention: someone will be in the limelight. In this case, it’s the pianist. The work was written for Heinrich Grob, a neighbor of young Schubert and the son of a silk manufacturer in the Lichtenthal neighborhood of Vienna. Significantly, Heinrich’s sister Therese Grob was Schubert’s first love. 

“The adagio is imposing and colorful,” writes Schubert biographer Brian Newbould, “introducing at times the delightful effect of a high melodic piano part given out for the two hands an octave apart, above a carpet of string sound.” The opening violin melody may remind you of the languid slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.

The title “rondo” is a misnomer. The main part of the movement is closer to a sonata form with a big set of secondary themes and no development section at all. The piano never rests in this sparkling music, which in its opening solo statement and tutti acclamation sounds less like chamber music than a scaled-down concerto finale (though it is more brilliant than any Mozart concerto). One feature deserves notice. As the second theme progresses, four stressed repeated notes lead to new harmonies. Even as a teenager, Schubert was pushing the envelope.

Piano Quartet No. 3 in B minor, Opus 3 Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
(b. Hamburg, 1809; d. Leipzig, 1847)

“Mendelssohn was the greatest child prodigy the history of Western music has ever known,” declares Charles Rosen in The Romantic Generation. “Not even Mozart or Chopin before the age of nineteen could equal the mastery that Mendelssohn already possessed when he was only sixteen. Most astonishing is the nature of Mendelssohn’s precocious talent: not only a gift for lyrical melodic lines and delicate, transparent textures, but, above all, a control of large-scale structure unsurpassed by any composer of his generation.” All of these features are displayed in the Piano Quartet No. 3, written when Mendelssohn was all of fifteen. 

The work was finished on January 18, 1825 and published later that year. In the meantime, Mendelssohn and his father journeyed from their Berlin home to Paris on an errand to retrieve Felix’s aunt Henriette and buy an English Broadwood grand piano. In April, Mendelssohn performed the Quartet in Paris at the Chapelle royale, in salons with some of Paris’s best musicians, and in Weimar on May 20. In Weimar, Mendelssohn also met Goethe, who was already regarded as a national treasure. 

Like Schubert’s Adagio and Rondo, Mendelssohn’s Quartet is a concertante work, and it keeps the pianist busy. “The B-minor Quartet heralds Felix’s mature style,” notes Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd. “Indeed, the leap from the Quartet to the high plateau of the Octet, finished in October, is not great. The quartet impresses with his Beethovenian length, compelling themes, and formal novelties.” 

That innovative spirit is evident right away. Piano begins with what could be called a “moan-motive,” a half-step decoration above and below the tonic. The motive will be an important unifying trait, joining a pulsing bass and running triplets to provoke palpable anxiety.  The exposition is not repeated. Instead of a development, we hear an entirely new theme at a new, faster tempo. At the peak, strings wail in chorus. 

The Andante in E major is notable for its subtle phrasing and elusive piano melody, which begins with four upbeat eighth notes. One highlight: a tender modulating phrase for violin underscored by pizzicato. On the reprise, cello gets the tune.

Todd calls the Allegro molto in F-sharp minor “a prototype of the Mendelssohnian scherzo,” but it’s more than an imp’s picnic. The piano figure, a kind of Spinning Song,” cites the moan-motive and trips up the scale. The exuberant trio, in B-major, reverses direction, ingeniously varying phrase lengths as one instrument follows another down the scale.

The finale is a big sonata movement with lots of drama fueled by an insistent, ascending chromatic surge. Strings moan to the end.

Mendelssohn’s mother requested permission to dedicate the Quartet to Goethe and she sent the esteemed poet a published copy. That day Goethe also received a parcel from Vienna with three of Schubert’s songs. Goethe admired Felix’s “astonishing” activity, and wrote to the composer: “You have given me very great pleasure, my dear Felix, with your valuable present which, though previously announced, took me by surprise. I regard it as the graceful embodiment of that beautiful, rich, energetic soul which so astonished me when you first let me become acquainted with it.” Schubert never heard from Goethe.

Piano Quartet No. 1 in D major, Opus 16 George Enescu (b. Liveni Vîrnav, 1881; d. Paris, 1955)

If you know any music by George Enescu, it’s probably the exhilarating Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, written when he was twenty. Like Rachmaninoff and his C-sharp minor Prelude, the composer later came to resent its popularity. For while Enescu is unquestionably the greatest musician to emerge from Romania, his gifts and achievements deserve the attention and wonder of the larger world. He is already celebrated at home: the George Enescu Philharmonic is Romania’s flagship orchestra, and his hometown, a remote northern village on the Moldovan border, has been renamed George Enescu in his honor.

There are two piano quartets by Enescu. The second, Opus 30, is in D minor and was written during World War II. The quartet on this program, No. 1 in D major, was composed in the very different world of 1909, a world of amplitude and possibility. The Quartet is influenced by Brahms and Strauss but dominated by a uniquely Romanian sensibility. Noel Malcolm, writing in the New Grove, cites the influence of the Romanian doina, “a meditative song, frequently melancholic, with an extended and flexible line in which melody and ornamentation merge into one.”

Enescu’s approach to quartet writing is primarily melodic. He often doubles or even triples lines to intensify the expression. “I’m not a person for pretty successions of chords,” he wrote. “A piece deserves to be called a musical composition only if it has a line, a melody, or, even better, melodies superimposed on one another.”

Enescu begins in unison with a distinctive Brahmsian theme that clearly defines D major. The first four notes provide a crucial motive that will reappear at the climax of the movement. Note also the beseeching tone of the second theme, with its insistent triplets.

An A-flat minor chord plunges us into the sadness of the Andante, a tritone and a world away. Repeated notes throb beneath a cello melody in the heart of the instrument. The climax is full-throated and sustained. Rhapsodic is the only word for the long coda, a pleasure garden with birds skittering up and down (and many superimposed melodies). 

The finale is music of enormous vitality, goaded on by an ascending half-step motive. A rising viola melody, chromatic and brooding, develops along with the ever-rude half-step. The second subject, poco meno mosso, is diaphanous and trilling. As a virtuoso, Enescu knows how to build tension to the breaking point, as the coda shifts gears from 6/8 meter to 2/4 and 5/8.

The Quartet was premiered at the Soirées d’Art in Paris on December 18, 1909. Yet it was only heard twice more during Enescu’s lifetime, in 1910 and 1933. Ambidextrous Enescu played the piano part. 

The only child of eight to survive, Enescu began to play the violin at four, and was composing within a year. His unique blend of talents was nurtured at the Vienna Conservatory and in five years at the Paris Conservatory, where, as “Georges Enesco,” he studied composition with Massenet and Fauré. His cohort there included Ravel and Alfred Cortot, who marveled at the teen-aged Enescu’s equal mastery of Brahms’s Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata for piano solo.

Enescu matured into one of history’s most versatile and accomplished musicians. He was one of the great violinists of his day, touring internationally as a soloist and partnering with Kreisler, Ysaÿe and Pablo Casals. Casals—slighting Mendelssohn—called Enescu “the most amazing musician since Mozart.” Blessed with an incredible memory, it is said that he knew Wagner’s entire Ring and the complete works of Bach by heart. His pianistic prowess is less well-known, but he once accompanied Menuhin in a program that included the Franck Sonata and his own Sonata No. 3. 

Enescu was considered to replace Toscanini as music director of the New York Philharmonic. My father, a flutist, was a member of the Rochester (NY) Philharmonic when Enescu guest-conducted in 1947. “At intermission [Enescu] never left the podium,” my father recalled. “He just allowed people to approach him. You would see him fingering, or fiddling—he looked like a guy who had given away all his money.”

Program notes © 2019 by David Evan Thomas