We can get some idea of the distance Strauss travelled in his career from the Piano Quartet, composed sixty years before Metamorphosen
. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Quartet is by some other composer, one in thrall to Brahms, as indeed Strauss was in 1885. It is instructive to read a review of a performance of this work written in 1904, nine months before he died at the age of forty-three, by Arthur Johnstone of the Manchester Guardian
, a critic of immense perspicacity and knowledge. In it, he thought, Strauss ‘shows himself a better Brahmsian than Brahms, avoiding all his model’s worst faults … The quartet … might rank as the mature work of anyone but Strauss’. It is a work on a big scale, lasting some forty minutes, structurally strong, the first movement in particular showing a dramatic grasp of symphonic tension. Echt-Strauss of course it is not, but it is impossible not to admire, even at times to love, its audacities. He completed it in Munich on New Year’s Day 1885, having worked on it the previous year during his visit to Berlin. The first performance was in Weimar on 8 December 1885 by members of the Halír Quartet with Strauss playing the piano part. The following month it was repeated at Meiningen, where Strauss was then court conductor. He dedicated it to his employer, the Grand Duke, ‘in gratitude’. The work won the prize given by the Berlin Tonkünstler Verein for a piano quartet (there were twenty-four entries).
Perhaps, however, one should recognize the real Strauss in the broad sweep of the second subject of the first movement and in the Till-like way in which he switches moods during this Allegro. In the skittish Scherzo, placed second, we can hear pre-echoes of the Burleske for piano and orchestra, composed in 1886, another work for which Brahms was the inspiration but in which the Strauss we know makes several guest appearances. The delightful trio section returns in the coda. The melodies of the slow movement are profuse in their emotional richness. If they are sentimental, they do not outstay their welcome; and where will we hear that intriguing little triplet figure again? In Ariadne auf Naxos! The finale is more Schumann than Brahms, but here too the keen ear will detect foreshadowings of the mature Strauss in some of the subsidiary figures.
from notes by Michael Kennedy © 2007