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Piano Quartet in C major, Op 66
1864; dedicated to Pauline Viardot-García; published in 1866

'Rubinstein: Piano Quartets' (CDA68018)
Rubinstein: Piano Quartets
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Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Allegro vivace
Movement 3: Andante assai
Movement 4: Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco

Piano Quartet in C major, Op 66
Rubinstein seems to have given many a performance of the Piano Quartet in C major, Op 66, dedicated to the celebrated singer and composer Pauline Viardot-García, with whose complicated ménage—Pauline, her husband and children and the novelist Ivan Turgenev—Rubinstein became acquainted in 1863. The composer had given the piece in concert by early 1864 (including performances with Ferdinand David taking the violin part) and it was published in 1866. In its day it proved to be one of Rubinstein’s most popular works, and it is easy to see why such an urbane and agreeable work should have taken instant hold of the public imagination, from the first hearing of the very calm opening statement of the first theme from the piano, before the strings join in and take it to the heavens. The transition to the second subject contains two important elements: the chromatic theme interleaved with string triplet chords, and the yearning melody characterized by falling sixths which follows, and which contains the seed of the second subject, a truly memorable melody of repeated notes and a rising fourth, repeated in sequence, rounded off with a variant of the yearning theme which introduced it. The powerful development section is based entirely on the first theme. It reaches a tranquil plateau in D flat major before that chord is revealed as having the properties of a Neapolitan sixth, and leads us via a mysterious then dramatic outcry to the recapitulation, where an A flat lingers well into the return of C major. The coda develops the main material in reverse order, and the movement ends in the same calm atmosphere in which it began.

The awkward and deliberately angular motif that informs the scherzo—cast in F major—lends it an air of wicked playfulness, and the clock-ticking broken octave accompaniment that arrives part-way through looks forward to the textures of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. The ticking unites the scherzo to the trio (not so marked), which continues without tempo change, now in A minor, with the theme given to the viola. The reprise of the scherzo keeps the music in the home key and, after a brief pause for reflection, ends the movement with great delicacy and wit.

The slow movement (in A minor) is really a music drama in miniature. A slow syncopated theme in octaves in the lower register of the piano is punctuated by lugubrious repeated notes from violin and cello and a tender arpeggio from the viola. The second part of the theme is a rocking accompaniment from the piano to an almost static string theme in long notes, whose character is only slowly revealed. The middle section features an elaborate and dramatic solo from the violin, marked patetico, with piano tremolos, and viola and cello interjected chords. The two elements of the first theme return in reverse order, what is now the second part taken through an anguished series of harmonic alterations but finally returned to A minor, and then A major, where a stunningly beautiful transformation occurs. When this is finally interrupted by a dramatic silence, the strings take the rocking accompaniment previously played by the piano, and the piano takes the static notes originally played by the strings, but now restricted to twelve chimes leading to the valedictory version of the main material in the coda. There is no clue as to any possible extra-musical inspiration for this music but one is tempted to imagine some kind of parallel case to the Chopin Ballades, where there is an undisclosed and impassioned literary narrative.

The finale is also dramatic, but generally a bucolic affair, with snappy gestures passed between keyboard and strings, a theme in rising chords through the C major scale that owes a distant kinship with the finale of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op 2 No 3, and some mock-menacing rhythmic contributions from viola and piano. The piano takes the rather melancholy second theme (startlingly Brahmsian!), accompanied pizzicato, and eventually taken over by bowed strings. This theme gives way without a break to what seems to be a Russian folk-song, played in octaves by violin and viola and repeated by cello and piano. The development is very short, but the recapitulation of the opening material is now extended by a chordal motif that may be religious in origin, the chords being alternately played by piano and strings. The first theme resumes and is again interrupted by this chordal theme, which is itself sequentially extended. The second theme and the folk-song return as expected, but the latter is given a further triumphal reprise in an ebullient C major before elements of the opening bring down a festive curtain on this splendid piece.

from notes by Leslie Howard © 2014

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