Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26 (1861) – Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Allegro non troppo
Scherzo: Poco allegro
Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1833, Johannes Brahms is considered not only a master of the symphonic and sonata style, but also, the reframer of the traditions of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. He first studies music with his father and in his mid teens is earning money to help his family by playing piano at the Hamburg dock inns. Beginning in 1850 Brahms presents concerts with Eduard Remenyi, a Jewish Hungarian violinist, who introduces him to Roma music – an influence that will find its way into his compositions. In 1853 Joseph Joachim, the violin virtuoso, recommended Brahms to Robert Schumann and their resulting deep friendship set the course of Brahms life. When Schumann becomes tragically ill, Brahms assists Clara Schumann in managing her family. In the early 1860s Clara and Joseph Joachim encouraged Brahms to travel to Vienna, the capital of German music. Brahms takes his piano quartets No. 1 and No. 2 with him and premieres No. 2 in A Major with the Hellmesberger Quartet and himself at the piano. Interestingly, Brahms, also, made an arrangement of the quartet for two pianos.
Brahms is the giant among composers of chamber music in the Romantic era, and his introspective Quartet No. 2 is a stunning example. He composes Piano Quartet No. 2 in symphonic scale in terms of length; this piece is the longest of his chamber music works. And, his inclination toward Classical principles of construction paired with new melodic and harmonic elements are evident in the formal design of each movement. The serene Allegro non troppo in sonata form is in the key of A major; the main theme is introduced by the piano before being taken up by the strings. The mood is pastoral. The second movement, Poco Adagio is an E major rondo. The piano’s opening tranquil, song-like theme has a gypsy style cadential turn. In its nocturnal nature it is a homage to the Romantic spirit as well as to Brahms’ mentor, Robert Schumann, who has recently died. Here the strings are muted and the piano plays in a soft register. And there is even a nod to a burst of popular waltz music . A gentle Scherzo: Poco allegro follows, which is actually a scherzo in A major and a trio in d minor; uniquely, both are in sonata form. The quartet concludes with an A major Finale, and the Gypsy tint of the first theme is soon overtaken by long Schubertian melodies, woven for a grand conclusion.
Brahms scores his quartet for violin, viola, cello and piano.
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 61 (ca. 1907) – Wladyslaw Zelenski (1837 – 1921)
Sometimes chaos ignites creativity; other times stability nourishes art. Imagine living in an era in a country that is never able to develop an international profile. A place partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Years where occupying powers have ulterior motives about the development of too much national sentiment or cultural independence. This is how it is for Wladyslaw Zelenski.
Born in Grodkowice, Galicia (now Poland), Zelenski is already writing chamber music in secondary school. Although he pursues piano and composition studies in Krakow, Prague and Paris, he is a man of wide horizons, receiving a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Prague. After a stint of teaching in Warsaw, he settles in Krakow, becoming a long time professor of music theory, piano and composition, conducting and organizing musical events. Known for his operas, he is considered a teacher of esteemed reputation. And while he, also, writes keyboard pieces, concertos, chamber music, songs, and symphonic compositions, much of his music is lost as are the dates of those pieces that survive him.
Although the exact date of his Piano Quartet is unknown, we do have the score. The work is a yearning, wistful, lyric piece with nods to Mendelssohn and Schumann as well as Brahmsian tendencies in the melody, texture of the piano writing, and the distribution of the voices. To his work Zelenski adds a Slavic folky tang and national dance rhythms. In particular, although the third movement is called Intermezzo, it hails from the mazurka. This G minor movement begins chromatically off-key and off-beat with an air of whimsy and includes a melodic second idea in Bb. Eventually, there are two contrasting episodes: murmurs in Eb major brought to order by the piano and a scampering G major conclusion with a final toss to the air.
Zelenski orchestrates his quartet for violin, viola, cello and piano.
Cello Concerto in C Major, Hob. VIIb/1 (1761-65) – Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
A paid professional composer, Haydn’s output is staggering: 104 symphonies, 83 quartets, 16 operas, countless divertimenti, duos, trios march alongside masses, oratorios, te deums, and cantatas. But, one genre he finds harder to write is the concerto, since his heart is more with the interplay of groups of musicians rather than pyrotechnical display of a soloist. However, he does write nineteen concertos, including two for cello, and he creates the Concerto in C Major for one of his favorite cellists, Joseph Franz Weigl, the solo cellist of the Esterhazy Orchestra in Eisenstadt, Austria. Unfortunately,a disastrous fire occurs at Eisenstadt in 1768, and for years musicologists assume much of Haydn’s early music, including this concerto, is lost. It does not exist except in Haydn’s Draft Catalogue in which he lists his compositions. For two hundred years this composition is silent. So, imagine the shock and delight in 1961 when Czech musicologist Oldrich Pulkert, the archivist of the Prague National Museum, uncovers a set of parts, written apparently by Weigl himself. The old is suddenly new and receives its first performance in Prague in 1962 – a mere 57 years ago!
Haydn opens the concerto’s Moderato first movement with energetic, robust confidence, displaying the cello’s ability to embrace both energy and lyricism. Horns and oboes add to the tutti sections but are absent when the solo cello is playing, keeping the texture light. The Adagio is a lovely aria filled with a sauve eloquence; the strings accompany the long, tender lines of the soloist while the winds remain silent. But, it is in the Allegro molto that the Haydn we often think of reveals himself, employing his characteristic wit and charm. This movement is a tour de force for the soloist. There is breathless tension, flying arpeggios, relentless scales, high passages – all progressing in the sheer, bursting joy of finale.
The cello concerto is composed for solo cello, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings.
Program Note Sources
Program Notes – Boglarka Kiss, South Bay Chamber Music Society, November 30, 2018
Johannes Brahms – Karl Geiringer, Britannica Biography, January 19, 2021
Brahms Piano Quartet – Alan Beggerow, Musical Musings, May 9, 2016
Piano Quartet No. 2 in a major, Op 26 Notes – Calum MacDonald, Hyperion Records 2006
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 61 from CDA7905 – Adrian Thomas, Hyperion Records 2012
Zelenski/Noskowski Piano Quartets CD Review – Martin Anderson, Classical Net Review – 1996/1998
Zelenski/Zarebski: Piano Quintet, Piano Quartet Review – Clive Paget Limelight: Music, Arts and Culture March 21, 2013
San Francisco Symphony Program Notes – Michael Steinberg, January, 2018Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program Notes – Phillip Huscher, May, 2004
Program Notes by Pat Badger