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by Eric Bromberger

Piano Quartet in A Minor

Born July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia
Died May 18, 1911, Vienna

One of the most remarkable aspects of the career of Gustav Mahler is that he composed in so narrow a range–here is a major composer whose creativity found expression in only two forms: symphony and song. In his catalog of works, there is no piano music, no chamber music, no opera, nor even any concertos. During his years as a student at the Vienna Conservatory (1875-78), however, Mahler did write several works for chamber ensembles, apparently as composition exercises. These works, most of which have vanished, are known to have included a violin sonata, a piano quintet, and at least a fragment of another piano quintet.

But one work from Mahler’s student years has survived, a Piano Quartet in A Minor, probably written by the teenaged composer in either 1876 or 1877. There is no record of a performance during Mahler’s lifetime. The manuscript was in the possession of the composer’s wife Alma, and the first known performance took place in New York City on February 12, 1964, nearly a century after it was written. The quartet consists of one movement, apparently intended as a first movement, and there is also a sketch (only 24 measures) of a scherzo movement.

Nothing in this student piece suggests that it is the work of the man who would later compose a magnificent cycle of ten symphonies. There is nothing distinctively Mahler-like here, and in fact anyone hearing this music without knowing its composer might guess that it is the work of either Schumann or Brahms. Yet the young composer clearly has an instinctive grip of sonata form, and he manipulates his three themes deftly over the twelve-minute span of the movement. The opening, marked Nicht zu schnell (“not too fast”), moves somberly over the piano’s quiet triplets, and the movement’s main theme-shape is introduced by the cello. The powerful second idea, marked Entschlossen (“resolute”), climbs fiercely, then falls back on long chromatic lines, while the third theme is a gentle lyric idea introduced by the violin. The development is quite long, and just before the quiet close Mahler offers the violinist a brief–and very florid–cadenza.

Viola Quintet in C Major, K.515

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

Many regard the string quartet as the summit of chamber music, and Haydn, Beethoven, and Bartók found it ideal for some of their finest music. But that form gave Mozart unusual problems, and he struggled with all his mature quartets. The addition of one extra instrument, however–the instrument Mozart preferred to play in chamber music–unlocked some of his greatest music, for chamber groups or any other ensemble. Perhaps the richer instrumental texture stirred his creative powers in unusual ways. Perhaps it was the distinctive sound of the violas. Perhaps it was the new possibilities for playing combinations of instruments off against each other. Who knows?

Mozart spent most of 1787 composing Don Giovanni, which would be premièred that October. During the spring of that year he composed two string quintets, one in April and one in May. It has often been noted that Mozart composed works in groups and that specific key signatures had particular expressive significance for him. His last two symphonies, composed within a month of each other, are a perfect example: the symphony in G minor is dark, intense, tragic; the other–in C major–is spacious, noble, and heroic. One sees exactly the same pattern in these two quintets. The String Quintet in G Minor, K.516 is powerful and dark, while the String Quintet in C Major, K.515 is marked by breadth and grandeur. Both these quintets are also unusually long-spanned works: if all its repeats are taken, the String Quintet in C Major can stretch out to more than 35 minutes, making it longer than any of Mozart’s string quartets (and in fact longer than any of his symphonies).

The Quintet in C Major opens with something rare in Mozart’s music: a leading theme played by the cello. This powerful figure begins with a rasping sound of the cello’s lowest note–the open C-string–and rises sturdily, but then it will not stop. This simple chordal theme recurs constantly, modulating through a series of unexpected keys: G major, E major, C minor, and finally D major. Mozart is opening up the widest possible tonal palette as he begins, and only after the initial figure has been repeated six times does he allow the first violin to sing the long and flowing second subject. It is a further mark of this music’s breadth that there is a third theme–a genial, syncopated little tune–just before the close of what is one of Mozart’s longest and most focused expositions. The development is brief, and then Mozart plunges back into an extended recapitulation and an equally remarkable coda. After all the expansive power of this movement, the music winks out on fragments of the second theme.

Debate continues about the correct sequence of the inner movements. Apparently Mozart himself was unsure about their order, and the quintet has been published and recorded with these movements in alternate positions.

The opening section of the Allegretto brings a surprise: the opening idea spans ten measures rather than the expected eight, with the violins in pairs, answered by pairs of lower instruments. At the trio, however, the music heads off in new directions entirely. Mozart modulates into F major, and now begins an odd and haunting dance, a sort of wistful waltz on winding chromatic lines. This trio goes on for some length–Mozart clearly liked the possibilities he found here–then winds its way back to order with the return of the minuet.

The Andante is an extraordinary movement–and not the sort of movement one expects in chamber music. In effect, it belongs to just two instruments, the first violin and the first viola, which sing a duet that is more like a joint cadenza by two virtuoso soloists than chamber music, and it recalls–in sound, spirit, and instrumentation–Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, composed eight years earlier in Salzburg. There is something almost jarring about the range of expression here, for this music is by turns consoling, fiery, gentle, furious, brilliant, as Mozart ranges easily between the high, silvery sound of the violin and the darker sound of the viola.

The concluding Allegro takes wing as the first violin soars off with a cheerful eight-bar theme that will clearly be the basis of a rondo. Yet Mozart is Mozart, and quickly the unexpected begins to happen: this cheerful tune develops, grows more complex, and is treated in some rich counterpoint–what had seemed a simple rondo in the opening measures now edges toward sonata form, particularly with the arrival of a second subject, announced by the pair of violins. The writing for the first violin in this movement quite extroverted: much of the part is high and difficult, and it is on that concerto-like brilliance that the Quintet in C Major–some of the most striking and powerful chamber music Mozart ever wrote–sails to its conclusion.

Trio in B-flat Major for Violin, Cello, and Piano, D.898

Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna

Schubert’s two piano trios stand among the finest of his chamber works, showing a masterly command of both content and technique. But the surprising thing is that no one knows when the Trio in B-flat Major was composed; the Trio in E-flat Major was begun in November 1827, only a year before the composer’s death, but scholars are at a loss when trying to date the trio performed on this concert. It was not published until 1836, nearly a decade after the composer’s death, and the manuscript has disappeared; students of Schubert’s life are left trying to date this music by looking for references to it in his correspondence (there are virtually none) or by stylistic resemblances to other works. Some have placed it as early as 1825, some in 1827, while others date it 1828, the year of Schubert’s death.

The question may never be resolved, and finally it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this is glorious music, a favorite of audiences and performers–and for good reason. It contains some of Schubert’s most lyric ideas, yet these themes do not–as is sometimes charged of Schubert’s music–remain static; instead, they develop logically within the confines of sonata form. Also noteworthy is Schubert’s handling of the three voices: he distributes thematic material so imaginatively that one always feels this music marked by a genuine partnership of its three performers.

The Allegro moderato is built on two beautifully-contrasted theme groups: the opening string melody and a wistful second subject first heard in the cello. This amiable music is remarkable for its rhythmic variety: in the course of the development, Schubert presents both themes simultaneously. The glowing Andante un poco mosso features a main theme that, in its warm lyricism, might almost be called “Brahmsian,” were that not absurd; perhaps it does suggest why, half a century later, Brahms held Schubert in such reverence. This lullaby-like idea develops with luxuriant richness, the simple theme gradually growing very complex.

The Scherzo feels almost restrained, perhaps because Schubert makes the music start and stop throughout the chromatic outer sections; by contrast, the trio is calm and stately. The finale is marked “Rondo,” but Schubert introduces a terse second idea, and the movement actually proceeds in sonata form. Many have thought the violin’s dancing opening melody the essence of Viennese music, and certainly it moves with cheerful lightness. Schubert varies the pulse of the movement with an ingenious touch: he re-bars the music from its original 2/4 to 3/2 and combines his principal themes at this relaxed new tempo. It is a wonderful stroke, and Schubert himself liked it so much that he brings it back once again before the energetic conclusions of this genial music.