Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Rondo: Allegro
If Don Giovanni was ‘too difficult to be sung’, the G minor Piano Quartet K478, completed on 16 October 1785, was apparently too difficult to be played. According to the biography of Mozart by Georg Nissen (second husband of Constanze Mozart), the work was to be the first of three piano quartets commissioned by the composer and publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. But, not surprisingly given its scale and technical and expressive complexity, the quartet proved unpopular with the amateur market; and, in Nissen’s words, Hoffmeister ‘made Mozart a present of the advance payment he had already received, on condition that he should not write the other two quartets contracted for’.
Mozart, though, evidently relished the challenge of what was then a novel medium, without significant precedents (though by a strange coincidence the fourteen-year-old Beethoven had composed three piano quartets earlier that same year, 1785). And during the first run of Figaro in May 1786 he composed a second piano quartet, in E flat, completed on 3 June and published the following year by the firm of Artaria. Like many of Mozart’s initially ‘difficult’ works, both quartets overcame early resistance and made their way in France, England and Germany. And on 30 November 1791, five days before Mozart’s death, the critic of the Musikalische Korrespondenz der Teutschen Filarmonischen Gesellschaft noted that the E flat Quartet was ‘written with that fire of the imagination and that correctness which has won for Herr M. the reputation of one of the best composers in Germany’.
In the G minor Piano Quartet eighteenth-century players and listeners had to contend not only with an unfamiliar and technically demanding medium (both string and keyboard parts would have been beyond most amateurs), but also with one of Mozart’s most complex and passionate first movements, permeated by its implacable unison opening gesture. Though Mozart sometimes treats the keyboard part in the virtuoso style of his great Viennese piano concertos, the dialogues and contrapuntal interplay between keyboard and strings—above all in the strenuous development—are in the spirit of true chamber music. After the first movement’s turbulent coda, the B flat Andante, with its sensuous chromaticism and delicately ornate passagework (shared between all four instruments), brings necessary balm. Unusually for a Mozart work in the minor key, the finale sets out immediately in a blithe, unclouded G major. Formally this is an expansive sonata rondo (a design found in many of Mozart’s Viennese piano concertos) with one hummable tune after another, a couple of which could have come straight from the mouth of Papageno. But there is drama here as well as hedonistic delight. And the central development recalls the spirit of the first movement, firstly in exchanges between imperious piano and beseeching strings, and then in a passage of stormy dialogue based on a fragment of the main theme.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2003