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Piano Quintet No 1 in D minor, Op 89

'Fauré: Piano Quintets' (CDA66766)
Fauré: Piano Quintets
Buy by post £10.50 CDA66766 
Movement 1: Molto moderato
Track 1 on CDA66766 [10'25]
Movement 2: Adagio
Track 2 on CDA66766 [10'56]
Movement 3: Allegretto moderato
Track 3 on CDA66766 [7'22]

Piano Quintet No 1 in D minor, Op 89
The Opus 89 Quintet has an enigmatic image, not least because it stands alone among Fauré’s works in having been published by the elder Gustav Schirmer in New York during the composer’s last year. (This partly thanks to the improbable advocacy of the young Aaron Copland, then in Europe.) Scores continue to be hard to find; thus also performances. In any case, like much of Fauré’s music this work does not yield up its secrets visually. In print the wisdom and painstaking economy can appear oddly insubstantial, again owing partly to the avoidance of conspicuous keyboard histrionics. This is true even more of the Second Quintet, and in both cases it is in marked contrast with the actual sound achieved.

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.

from notes by Francis Pott © 1995

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