Wu Han LIVE III
Wu Han LIVE III is the third collaborative release between the ArtistLed and Music@Menlo LIVE labels, featuring pianist Wu Han's recordings of Fauré's magnificent piano quartets from past Music@Menlo festivals.
Piano Quartet no. 1 in c minor, op. 15
Piano Quartet no. 2 in g minor, op. 45
With affection and admiration I dedicate this recording to Patty and Eff Martin, whose invaluable support and guidance enabled one of my most significant ventures Music@Menlo—to germinate, grow, and mature into one of the world’s most respected classical music institutions.
Wu Han (piano), Chad Hoopes (violin), Arnaud Sussmann (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), Richard O’Neill (viola), Clive Greensmith (cello), Dmitri Atapine (cello)
Notes on the Music:
(Born May 12, 1845, Pamiers, Ariège, France; died November 4, 1924, Paris)
Piano Quartet no. 1 in c minor, op. 15 (1876–1879; finale rev. 1883)
Piano Quartet no. 2 in g minor, op. 45 (1885–1886)
“In the years 1877 to 1879,” wrote the pianist Marguerite Long, a friend and regular collaborator of Gabriel Fauré, the composer “still had not escaped from the Wagnerian influences he had come under on his visits to Bayreuth with Saint-Saëns. But however overwhelmed he may have been, his music still retained its individuality. His inspiration, devoid of grandiose gestures, showed itself through charm, modesty, restraint, and freshness of expression.”
However tidily these descriptors may seem to summarize Fauré’s musical language, so does attentive scrutiny of his oeuvre reveal a nuanced stylistic development from his early period to his later works. Even comparison of the two piano quartets, composed within a decade of one another, begins to signal an evolution of style towards the experimental music of his final years. The Piano Quartet no. 1 in c minor, op. 15, composed between 1876 and 1879, shows itself indeed through charm, modesty, and restraint; equally does it validate the critic Harold C. Schonberg’s appraisal of the composer’s work as a whole: “It is music that contains the essence of everything Gallic—form, grace, wit, logic, individuality, urbanity… Those who love the music of Fauré love it as a private, cherished gift from one of the gentlest and most subtle of composers.” The Piano Quartet no. 2 in g minor, by contrast, completed in 1886, is a work of robust expressive power, textural and thematic complexity. The two quartets demonstrate a shift particularly in Fauré’s keyboard writing, from the subtlety and refinement of the earlier work to the audacity of the second.
Fauré completed the First Piano Quartet in 1879, in the wake of his broken engagement to Marianne Viardot. The Viardots were a prominent family in French cultural circles; Pauline Viardot, Marianne’s mother, was a noted composer. With her daughter’s financial security likely in mind, Madame Viardot had a notion towards her future son-in-law’s vocation: that he should satisfy French audiences’ demand for opera. Fauré had no such inclination. Throughout his career, he eschewed music for large forces, instead pursuing more intimate forms: chamber music, piano miniatures, choral pieces, songs. “Perhaps the break” from Marianne Viardot “was not a bad thing for me,” he concluded. “The Viardot family might have deflected me from my proper path.”
The Opus 15 Quartet begins with a unison theme in the strings, underscored by syncopated chords in the piano. From this musical idea, Fauré extrapolates a sweeping and impassioned melody. The theme returns in the violin, colored expressively by the lower strings. The viola introduces the second theme, taken up subsequently by each of the other voices. In the development section, Fauré juxtaposes these two themes in an amorous duet.
The Scherzo begins on a delicate note. Pizzicato chords in the strings provide a hushed accompaniment to the piano’s playful melody. When the strings take over the tune, the meter changes from 6/8 to 2/4; the piano quickly resumes control, and the meter shifts back into 6/8. This metric interplay animates the entire movement. The Trio section retains the Scherzo’s rhythmic vitality.
The heartbreak of Fauré’s broken engagement is most evident in the deeply felt Adagio. Above stoic chords in the piano, a somber melody emerges, played first by the cello, and subsequently joined in turn by viola and violin. The movement’s contrasting B section offers a sunnier melody as if casting a nostalgic gaze upon happier times. The finale counters the morose Adagio with quiet but focused agitation.
Little is known surrounding the creation of the Piano Quartet no. 2 in g minor, op. 45. Fauré likely composed the work between 1885 and 1886 and played the piano part himself at its premiere on January 22, 1887, at a concert presented in Paris by the Société Nationale de Musique Francaise. (Another performance of note came on November 9, 1891, in London, involving the Belgian composer and violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe.) The score bears a dedication to the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Otherwise, almost nothing is known of the quartet’s circumstances.
In any event, the work’s rhetorical power places it toe to toe with the robust piano quartets of the German Romantics (Robert Schumann’s Opus 44, the three piano quartets of Brahms). It moreover makes evident that Fauré’s keyboard prowess matched his compositional imagination: the muscular piano part, realized by the composer at the premiere, requires strength and sensitivity in equal measures. For much of the work, the piano single-handedly counterbalances the trio of strings rather than taking part as one of four equal voices. This dynamic propels the work immediately from the start of the first movement: over a turbulent piano accompaniment, violin, viola, and cello in unison introduce the impassioned theme. Subsequent material derives from the physiognomy of this opening melody. A thoughtful utterance by the viola heralds a change in complexion; Fauré fashions a gentler and tenderer music, which soon progresses to the ethereal, high register of the violin. Following a tranquil recitative in the viola and cello, punctuated by quietly rolled chords in the piano, the violin further transfigures the theme, pianissimo and dolcissimo. The viola, assuming further significance in the movement’s narrative structure, emerges from this transfiguration cryptically hemming and hawing; the movement passes into the development section, a harmonically rich mosaic of fragments of earlier material. The arrival at the recapitulation is forceful and abrupt.
The quartet’s fiendish pianism continues in the Scherzo. The left hand’s frenetic eighth-note accompaniment, accentuated by forceful pizzicati, provides a propulsive backdrop for the mischievously syncopated melody in the right hand. The strings, in unison, introduce their own musical idea, painted in broad strokes and superimposing 3/4 time onto the established 6/8 meter. The piano comments with increasingly chromatic iterations of its own melody. As the Scherzo progresses, the music seems precariously on the verge of eruption at any moment, but Fauré allows no such indulgence; instead, his sure-handed restraint only stokes further disquiet.
The piano introduction to the Adagio extends the Scherzo’s metric ambiguity, as Fauré divides the movement’s 9/8 meter—a time signature typically treated as nine small beats grouped into three big beats (1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3)—into nine groups of two (1-2, 2-2…) over two bars. Fauré apparently designed this passage to evoke church bells that he heard as a child in the village of Cadirac. The viola again assumes a prominent role, answering the piano undulations with fitting simplicity. Fauré lovingly instructs the viola to play piano, dolce, espressivo, senza rigor. The dialogue between these two musical ideas—or, perhaps, not dialogue, but poignant detachment of two estranged monologues—provides the blueprint for the rest of the movement. (Aaron Copland remarked that this slow movement’s “beauty is truly classic if we define classicism as intensity on a background of calm.”)
The finale answers the Adagio with a return to the first movement’s furious energy. Fauré even ups the fourth movement, marking it Allegro molto, but his economy and concision of thematic material hold the wagon firmly intact through the tempestuous journey. The movement never relents; indeed, Fauré saves the coup de grâce for the exuberantly triumphant coda.
— © Patrick Castillo 2019