Molto moderato [10'25]
Allegretto moderato [7'22]
Allegro moderato [10'03]
Allegro vivo [4'04]
Andante moderato [10'57]
Allegro molto [6'06]
Other recommended albums
Debussy backhandedly dubbed him the ‘Master of Charms’; many have since underestimated him, knowing only one or two of his lightest ‘soufflés’; even his own modest assessment—‘I did what I could’—uttered to his two sons the day before his death, has done little to redress the image given to us by posterity of Gabriel Urbain Fauré.
Born on 12 May 1845 at Pamiers, a small town near the Pyrenees, Fauré later recalled himself as a taciturn and preoccupied child (‘I shall die the same elusive person I have always been’, he wrote to his wife in 1921). There had been no trace of music in his ancestry, and he appears to have been something of an ‘afterthought’ on the part of his parents, who already had five children.
From 1854 Fauré studied at the École Niedermeyer in Paris where, crucially, he absorbed the Gregorian modes, seeing their potential for much more than plainsong harmonization, and also mastered the notions of enharmonic modulation and pivotal chord formations so characteristic of his mature output as a whole. There also he became a pupil of Saint-Saëns, an inspired teacher to whom he was later to claim that he owed everything.
A brief biographical sketch need mention only a few subsequent details in a relatively unsensational life: a spell of courageous military service in 1870; marriage—despite straitened circumstances—to Marie Fremiet in 1883 (after which the family home was to remain in Paris for the rest of their lives); exposure, in company with Messager, to Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle in England and at Bayreuth (1888); an intriguing meeting with Liszt; a warm friendship with Tchaikovsky (1886–1889); the onset of hearing problems around 1902; Professorship of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire from 1905; sombre war years spent entirely in France; and loss of his professorial post through advancing deafness in 1920, leading again to precarious finances. This last notwithstanding, his final seven years saw an outpouring of powerful and vigorous chamber music. Indeed, his creativity, like that of Schubert, waxed as his physical constitution waned: this period brought forth the Second Violin Sonata, both Cello Sonatas, the Piano Trio, the String Quartet (his final work, Op 121), and the Second Piano Quintet, to be heard on this disc. He died peacefully at home on 4 November 1924. His ever-faithful wife—a true ‘composing widow’ if ever there was one—followed him within a matter of months.
Neglect of Fauré’s chamber output has been sufficient to inhibit realistic assessment of his stature, and the reasons for this concern both style and temperament—in his case, to an almost unique degree, two sides of the same coin. It remains easy to refer superficially to qualities of subtle refinement, elusiveness and reticence; but, while they are surely part of the story, as critical labels they are vague and even (in the case of reticence) misleading. A few further observations may assist.
Saint-Saëns provided the young Fauré with an intimate knowledge of the contrapuntal techniques of Bach. In addition, whereas Saint-Saëns was a fully-fledged keyboard virtuoso, Fauré was more simply an able pianist. From these facts proceed significant features of his chamber output.
First, although Fauré’s instrumental writing constantly displays freely canonic ingenuity rather than any more stringently ‘Baroque’ counterpoint, the results retain a certain ‘gestural’ continuity in keeping with aspects of earlier practice. Textures may be felt to evolve into one another, rather than to be supplanted or punctuated in the interests of illuminating a preconceived ‘Classical’ structure (even when that structure is satisfyingly present). If a word such as ‘rhetoric’ applies at all, then it refers most usefully to a generalized—yet distinctive—sense of emotional elevation in the music; but the unfolding of texture remains smoothly organic in every sense. Fauré’s is habitually the language of seamless flow, almost never of dramatic interruption.
Secondly, and relating to the above, Fauré’s attitude to the piano differs notably from that of most other composers to whose thinking the instrument has been central. In a Romantic context one might well expect a pianist/composer to treat the piano in a quintet almost as a ‘concertante’ soloist, often pitting the rhetorical virtuosity of the keyboard against the sustained line of strings doubled in opposition. This is recognizable more widely as something of a cliché, used (sparingly) even by Fauré himself in his two earlier Piano Quartets (of 1879 and 1886). But for Fauré’s textures to move seamlessly they must also blend to perfection at any given point. This is where one must qualify the earlier mention of reticence, for it is mainly through the understatement of his fastidiously crafted piano parts that this composer remarkably succeeds in unifying string and keyboard texture. In these Quintets it will be apparent that the strings as a group are often far from reticent, but the balance of canonic skill and natural melody weaves a pervasive web of harmonic richness, and into this the piano often fits either as unobtrusive equal in the dialogue or as a rhythmically subdivided version of the strings’ chordal movement.
As such, these works are susceptible to superficial epithets suggestive of watery obliquity. In truth, however, they are by turns passionate, ethereal, melancholic, even whimsical. Superficial they are not, and it is their inherent tendency to reward only close attention which sees them too casually dismissed or else damned with faint praise. Just as a listener hoping for melodrama will surely be disappointed, some may sense a lack of obvious contrast between certain successive movements. There, as in all things, the effect is born of exacting premeditation, not of unconscious failing—as the gestation of the First Quintet demonstrates.
Piano Quintet No 1 in D minor Op 89
The First Quintet appeared in 1906. For a long time commentators assumed that, as it followed closely upon Fauré’s professorial appointment at the Paris Conservatoire, its creation must have been hasty and plagued by distractions, and some have used this as fuel for prejudices against it. But, as Professor Robert Orledge shows in his distinguished study of Fauré (Eulenberg, 1979/1983), the gestation had been long and troublesome. A surviving notebook contains ideas used in the Finale alongside sketches for the Requiem (Opus 48), indicating that attempts at the Quintet date from as early as 1887. In 1891 Fauré was considering the addition of a second violin part to a projected third piano quartet, and at this stage played through sketches of a ‘Piano Quintet, Opus 60’ with the Ysaÿe Quartet (Eugène Ysaÿe was to become the dedicatee of Opus 89). Intermittent work on the Quintet continued through to 1894 but then ceased until 1903. A great effort ensued late in 1904, during which the composer referred in a letter to ‘this animal of a Quintet’; and the piece was finally completed towards the end of 1905. The premiere in March 1906, involving the Ysaÿe Quartet, was first rehearsed only the day before owing to Ysaÿe’s chaotic lifestyle and ‘methods’, a fact rather sadly in keeping with the work’s difficult genesis.
The first movement’s opening theme typifies a distinctively rapt weightlessness achieved on several occasions by Fauré. In the light of the 1887 notebook one may be reminded of the ‘In Paradisum’ movement from the Requiem. The initial tonality leans predominantly towards F major, clinching the tonic key only when it generates a sombre cadence. The characteristic smoothness of progression is apparent, as is some harmonic relationship between secondary material and the third and fourth movements of Opus 115. The mood is at times austere, at others wistful, with some degree of both in the subdued D major conclusion.
A melancholy introspection prevails during the slow movement, carried partly by prominent falling intervals of the tone and semitone and by short-lived melismatic climaxes which subside with a peculiar sadness. A new theme about one third of the way through, presenting a falling four-note scale followed by a descending fifth, shows clearly the importance to Fauré’s expressive resources of linear modality.
Far from being a hurriedly dashed-off affair, this movement—especially in its conclusion—caused him prolonged difficulty.
The Finale opens in an almost apologetic ‘divertissement’ style, as if uncertain whether to become a scherzo or by-pass it. This is perhaps significant since Fauré is known to have settled for the three-movement format as late as August 1905 (after he had passed this point? The sequence of events seems to admit this possibility). Again, string density is the moving force, and, although the piano assumes equal melodic significance at times, it never does so to any grandiose rhetorical effect. The music is rich in free counterpoint but almost wholly devoid of dotted notes, ties or deflections of down beat accentuation. The relative pianistic ‘muscle’ of the conclusion comes as something of a surprise—or, perhaps, a wry nod at what might have been.
The composite effect of Opus 89 is one of strangely inward melancholy. It may be to the point that during the 1880s Fauré had experienced dizziness, severe head pains and depression, seemingly recurrences from his infancy. These may or may not have been related to the death in 1885 of his father with whom he had had a difficult and uncommunicative relationship as a child. Equally, his troubles in the 1880s may have portended later hearing difficulties; and these began in earnest in 1902, just before he returned to the Quintet for the definitive onslaught. Whatever the truth, and despite the composer’s weary admission that he appeared to repeat himself endlessly, the problems of this neglected work deserve to be seen—however speculatively—as creatively significant and aware, not inattentively perfunctory or half-hearted.
Piano Quintet No 2 in C minor Op 115
Published by Durand and dedicated to Paul Dukas, the Quintet dates from 1921. Fauré had been tactfully eased out of his professorship on account of his deafness which, though not total, had come to entail a grievous disposition to hear low pitches distorted upwards and vice versa. But from his earliest days as a student at the École Niedermeyer, where cramped conditions meant that there were several pianos to a room (!), he had enjoyed a capacity to work away from the keyboard and undistracted by seemingly impossible surroundings. And now he was at last free to devote himself exclusively to composition.
The Quintet’s first movement was written after the middle two, as was Fauré’s habit in all the late chamber compositions. Its opening theme, a viola solo, shows that the innate subtlety of its composer’s thought processes extended to things rhythmic: its unobtrusive ambiguity in this respect, presented before any unequivocal disclosure of triple time, seems almost designed to lead the listener to assume quadruple rhythm instead. This is a further instance of the composer’s music not looking the way it sounds. (A comparable example may be found in the song Clair de lune (Op 46), with its insinuations of both duple and triple time before a studiedly tangential vocal entry.)
Koechlin was surely right: the Allegro moderato’s opening theme must rank as one of Fauré’s finest melodic inspirations, and this movement as a whole succeeds radiantly in suggesting a single unbroken curve of lyricism, although its form is actually complex and unexpected—in effect a system of continuous development spread over four sections. Characteristically, the climactic restatement of the opening theme emerges—despite a break in the string line—as the spontaneous progeny of the foregoing development’s intensive polyphony.
Orledge interestingly notes the relative absence of extremities of bass pitch from the piano part, arguably related to the composer’s hearing affliction as described above?
The second movement is a quicksilver Scherzo of unexpected astringency, a reminder that this composer’s exceptionally attractive personality embraced a dry and mischievous sense of humour. Again the impression is of one sustained (but hectic) exhalation; not of contiguous sections.
The long slow movement (in G major) admits something of the melancholy of the First Quintet, but there is an air also of gentle resignation, perhaps reminiscent for us on its own terms of the prayerful humility of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto’s slow movement, or the ‘Thanksgiving’ movement from Beethoven’s Opus 132 String Quartet.
The Finale provides balance with the first movement (despite the absence of any pretence towards cyclic planning) by setting out with both another viola theme and a corresponding instance of rhythmic dissemblance. The composer’s letters show that he enjoyed working at this, and there are certainly high-spirited moments; but a further theme, stated also by the viola initially, carries with it a faint but nagging reminiscence of the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. (‘In heaven, I shall hear again’, Beethoven is reported to have said.) Conscious or not, this seems an apt verbal allusion at the end of a work whose liveliness cannot wholly disguise a certain autumnal quality. The spare writing of this Finale might suggest not so much youthful ardour regained as youthfulness in others, observed with gently wistful amusement from the vantage point of sprightly old age. Here, as in all this composer’s music, one encounters an enduring quality of unsensational, restrained honesty: complex and elusive as its creator, certainly, but worthy of our close attention even in its least known recesses.
Francis Pott © 1995