Kräftig, mit Humor [7'27]
Humoreske: Lebhaft [7'01]
Finale: Im Marsch-Tempo [5'29]
Following the huge success of their disc of Schumann's first two Piano Trios (CDA67063) which won a Gramophone Award and was descibed as the best chamber record of 1999 by BBC Radio 3, The Florestan Trio here complete their recording of all Schumann's Trios and present further chamber works by Schumann. In the Piano Quartet the trio are joined by viola player Thomas Riebl who performed the work with them most recently at London's Wigmore Hall, to great critical acclaim. Although the Quartet in E flat has never achieved the same degree of popularity as the famous Quintet that preceeded it, this wonderful performance is sure to win the work new admirers.
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One of Schumann’s extra-curricular activities as a reluctant 18-year-old law student at Leipzig University had been to form a piano quartet. The ensemble’s convivial evenings of drinking and music-making were given over to large quantities of Bavarian beer, and to performances of such works as Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio, the E flat Trio of Schubert, and the Piano Quartet by the Bohemian composer Jan Ladislav Dussek. Schumann himself also composed a Piano Quartet in C minor at this time, which still survives. As he was working on it, in November 1828, he was thrown into an emotional turmoil by the news of Schubert’s untimely death. A diary entry for the last day of the month reads simply: ‘My quartet—Schubert is dead—dismay’.
For a long time this youthful piano quartet, permeated with echoes of Schubert, remained an isolated experiment: not until 1842 did Schumann return to chamber music for piano and strings. In the summer of that year, after an intensive study of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, he composed a set of three quartets of his own; and they were followed in the last three months of the year by the Piano Quintet Op 44, the Piano Quartet Op 47, and the preliminary version of a Piano Trio in A minor. The last of these works did not reach its definitive form until 1850, when it appeared under the title of Fantasiestücke Op 88.
Piano Quartet in E flat major Op 47
The work begins with a slow introduction foreshadowing the main theme of the Allegro. Its sense of groping towards the light surely reflects Schumann’s study of the string quartets of Beethoven; and as Beethoven so often does in his late quartets, Schumann brings back the introduction at its original slow tempo at strategic points during the later course of the movement—notably at the end of the exposition and immediately before the coda. These moments of reflection punctuate what is one of Schumann’s most exhilarating pieces—one whose pulsating rhythm scarcely lets up for an instant.
The fleeting Scherzo is scored with Mendelssohnian lightness. Its delicately ‘tripping’ subject recurs intermittently in both trio sections—the first of them based on a smoothly moving phrase which clearly arises out of the same impulse as the Scherzo’s subject; the second, a thoroughly Schumannesque series of sustained, syncopated chords in contrasting registers. At the end, the music disappears in a puff of smoke, with the aid of the first trio’s initial phrase.
If the slow movement is perhaps less impressive than its counterpart in the Op 44 Quintet (its main melody, with its sequential ‘drooping’ phrases, can sound uncharacteristically mawkish), it is more than redeemed by the broad theme of its fine middle section, as well as by the striking originality of its coda. For the latter passage the cellist is instructed to tune his lowest string down a whole-tone, to B flat, on which note he provides a long drone which lends an air of hushed mystery to the closing bars of the movement. Above this note, the remaining players pre-echo, as if in slow motion and from afar, the opening motif of the finale. This was the first but by no means the only occasion on which Schumann carried out a procedure of this kind. At the end of the slow movement of the ‘Spring’ Symphony (No 1) the trombones solemnly anticipate the theme of the following Scherzo; while the Scherzo of the late Violin Sonata in D minor Op 121 culminates in a triumphant chorale whose theme is immediately taken up at the start of the delicate intermezzo-like third movement. These moments have little to do with so-called ‘cyclic’ form; rather, they represent a deliberate attempt on Schumann’s part to dissolve the boundaries between successive movements.
It is likely that Schumann borrowed this idea of anticipation from the famous link between the slow movement and finale of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, where the soloist plays a halting version of the rondo’s theme above a long-held note on the horns. The Intermezzo and finale of Schumann’s own Piano Concerto are similarly linked, except that—perhaps in order to avoid too close a parallel with the Beethoven—Schumann constructs his join out of a reminiscence of the opening movement’s theme rather than a premonition of the concluding rondo. Schumann’s procedure, especially as exemplified in the ‘Spring’ Symphony, seems to have left a deep impression on Mahler, who retained a lifelong fondness for momentarily opening a window onto a forthcoming movement.
Schumann’s finale is largely based on a running contrapuntal ‘tag’ of the kind Beethoven had used for the colossal fugue of his ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. The motif is preceded by three skipping chords—an extrovert reminiscence, perhaps, of the Scherzo’s second trio; while a second theme features a series of lyrical, syncopated phrases on the piano, very similar in shape to one of the variations from the slow movement. Such ‘hidden’ elements of unification may not have been consciously intended on the composer’s part. They were, rather, his reward for concentrated inspiration: by the time he completed this work, on 26 November 1842, he had produced no fewer than five large-scale chamber works in the space of six months. In the circumstances it is hardly surprising that as the year drew towards its close, Schumann was suffering from what he described as ‘nervous weakness’. He continued to compose, but clearly he found it an effort. ‘Worked on the Trio—too much—feeling unwell in the evening’, reads a diary entry for 16 December. The trio in question was a much less ambitious project than his preceding works, and Schumann managed to finish it before the year was out. All the same, he appears not to have been satisfied with it, and he almost certainly took the opportunity to make revisions prior to its publication in 1850. Its modest scope led him to issue it under the title of ‘Fantasy Pieces’.
Fantasiestücke Op 88
The opening Romanze, with its melancholy folk-like melody, is a piece of touching simplicity. Its theme reappears in a more lively form as the first episode of the following Humoreske, so that once again we find Schumann planning two successive movements as an interlinked pair. The various episodes of this second piece recur in a circular design, with the opening march-like theme returning only at the end. This final reprise is an exact replica of the opening section, though Schumann adds a coda which charmingly allows the march to fade away into the distance.
The Duet of the third movement is for the two stringed instruments, who spin a melodic line of great beauty while the piano provides a gently rippling accompaniment. As for the finale, it returns to the march rhythm of the second piece, albeit in more grandiose style. The plain chordal texture of the march itself contrasts strongly with the intricate counterpoint of the first episode, which is designed as an elaborately interwoven series of canons in which the answering voice often appears in mirror form. Towards the end, the music turns to the major for a curiously disembodied coda in which the piano’s chorale-like melody is shadowed throughout in syncopation by the stringed instruments. After this, the music gradually dies away while the pianist plays fleeting passagework over a drone from the strings. But the coda also has its own tailpiece: a sudden spurt of energy which brings the work to a flamboyant conclusion after all.
Piano Trio No 3 in G minor Op 110
Schumann’s G minor Piano Trio belongs to a group of three chamber works composed in rapid succession in the autumn of 1851, at a time when the composer’s relations with the Düsseldorf municipal orchestra, of which he had been director since 1849, had begun to sour. The Trio followed hard on the heels of Schumann’s First Violin Sonata in A minor; and its opening movement, with its passionately intense main subject and its driving 6/8 rhythm, clearly looks forward to that of the Sonata’s D minor successor which he began barely more than a fortnight later. Clara Schumann was able to play both the Trio and the D minor Sonata during a chamber music evening at their house, on 15 November. The string players on that occasion were Schumann’s violinist friend Joseph von Wasielewski, and the principal cellist of the Düsseldorf orchestra, Christian Reimers.
The following March, during a week-long celebration of Schumann’s music in Leipzig, Clara performed Schumann’s earlier Piano Trio in D minor, together with the leader of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Ferdinand David, and the cellist Johann Grabau. (At another musical soirée a day or two later, she played the new G minor Trio to Liszt, after which she and Liszt sight-read their way through Mendelssohn’s Allegro brillant for piano duet.) Schumann was so taken with Ferdinand David’s playing that he dedicated the D minor Violin Sonata to him. As for the Piano Trio in G minor, it was inscribed to the Danish composer Niels Gade, whose music was much admired by both Schumann and Mendelssohn. In the 1840s Gade had been Mendelssohn’s assistant at Leipzig, and, for a brief period following Mendelssohn’s death in 1847, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. However, when war broke out between Prussia and Denmark the following year Gade returned to Copenhagen, where he remained until he died in 1890.
Schumann’s last piano trio is a piece that has all but disappeared from the repertoire. Together with some of his other late chamber works, it has sometimes been cited as evidence of the composer’s weakening creative strength—a judgement with which any listener carried away by the surging passion of its opening Allegro, the warmth of its slow movement or the sweeping continuity of its scherzo may find it hard to concur. If the finale strikes us as rather more sectional, it nevertheless draws the threads of the work together with remarkable subtlety.
The opening movement, with its constantly intertwining parts for the two stringed instruments, shows Schumann’s fascination with intricate counterpoint. That fascination reaches a climax in the central development, where the cello introduces a mysterious pizzicato idea which serves to launch an extended passage of quadruple counterpoint whose short motifs are juggled around the trio texture with masterly prestidigitation. The passage comes to a climax over a long-sustained tremolo deep in the bass register of the keyboard; and as the music dies away, the reprise of the main theme emerges imperceptibly, as though it were beginning in mid-stream. The cello’s pizzicato motif makes a fleeting return right at the end of the movement’s quicker coda, allowing the music to die away in a conclusion of scherzo-like transparency.
The slow movement begins in the form of a long, deeply expressive duet for the two stringed instruments. The yearning ascending interval which launches their melody seems to hark back to the lyrical second subject of the opening movement. But the music soon gathers pace, at the same time becoming darker and more dramatic; and a second increase in tempo brings with it an agitated variant of the movement’s opening theme. At the end calm is restored, and the song-like opening theme returns—this time with the pianist at last joining in the melodic discourse.
The agitated scherzo which so impressed Clara Schumann has a turn-like theme rather reminiscent of the main subject of Schumann’s D minor Symphony (No 4). Of its two trio sections, the first, in the major, has a wonderfully expressive syncopated melody rising step-wise until its tension is released in a little group of semiquavers; while the second is a march-like interlude whose dotted rhythm is relieved by a smooth figure in triplet motion. Both trios leave their mark on the finale.
The finale’s main theme arises out of the same yearning interval presented both in the opening movement’s second subject and at the start of the slow movement. As if this undemonstrative means of unifying the work were not enough, the melody of the scherzo’s first trio soon makes a return, to be followed by the march-rhythm of the second trio; while towards the end the smooth triplets from the second trio also reappear, to usher in the work’s exuberant conclusion.
Misha Donat © 2000