Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Quartets: in g,
Ysaÿe Qrt; Jean-Claude Pennetier (pn)
YSAźE 08 (68:08)
This is the most lavish single-CD packaging I’ve yet to see. It’s a hardcover book to the inside front cover of which is glued a heavy gauge paper envelope for the disc itself, reminiscent of the old 78 albums. Sixty high-quality pages of printed material follow in French, English, and German. And for a truly
novel touch, a glossary of musical terms, referred to throughout the text, is included. If you want to know what “anacrusis” or “tritone” means, you can look it up in the glossary. It is said that the finest and most elegant horse-drawn carriages were made after the introduction of the first automobiles. That thought occurred to me as we see the brick-and-mortar CD shops disappear, more and more record labels cutting their classical artists loose, and even the finished production CD itself threatened by downloading of music from the Internet. Well, before it’s too late, you can still take a luxury carriage ride with this release.
Mozart’s only two known piano quartets are fully mature works dating from 1785–86; the E? Quartet in fact is the very next piece he wrote after completing
The Marriage of Figaro
. From approximately this same period also came the series of late piano concertos. So, we are dealing here with what are likely Mozart’s greatest chamber works, surpassing the final string quartets and at least rivaling the clarinet quintet.
Something new for Mozart happens in these pieces. It is of exquisite beauty, to be sure, but it also terribly important, and it would be a lesson not lost on Beethoven. To keep the analysis to a minimum, I will deal with just the G-Minor Quartet. It opens with a bold gesture that is actually comprised of two motivic cells: a falling fourth (G to D) and a four-note semi-tone alternation (D-E?-D-D). Throughout the exposition, we hear these cells repeatedly, always conjoined. Comes the development section and Mozart separates them. Virtually the entire development section is now based on a sequence of overlapping descending fourths. The four-note semi-tone cell is almost totally absent, except in the transition to the recapitulation. Fast forward now to the coda that follows the recapitulation. This is no simple coda; it is a second development. And in a heart-rending and urgently gripping passage, Mozart screws up the tension with what? The separated four-note cell he avoided in the formal development section.
If this were simply an example of Mozart’s sense of balance and formal perfection, it would hardly be anything new. But what
new, and the reason it is so significant, is that Mozart recognized something Beethoven is usually given credit for. Sonata-allegro form is about a dramatic tug-of-war between keys. The conflict is established in the exposition when the music modulates to another key for the second theme, and it is resolved in the recapitulation when the second theme returns in the home key. But there’s an inherent weakness; the piece isn’t over yet. How do you rebuild the tension in order to shift the real climax to the end? For the answer to that question on an epic scale, listen to the coda-cum-second-development that Beethoven gives us at the end of the “Eroica” Symphony’s first movement.
Not to be crude about it, but the tension and climax I’m talking about here are sexual. This was something Mozart understood and passed on to Beethoven. No art other than music—because it unfolds in the dimension of time—is capable of producing such a parallel. Now go listen to the first movement of this G-Minor Piano Quartet, and tell me your heart doesn’t race and your palms don’t sweat in those last 60 seconds. Beethoven, who of course inherited this knowledge early on, plays this game of delaying the climax until the very end again and again. Just two more examples: listen to the end of the first movement of the Third Piano Concerto and to the end of the first movement of the so-called “Harp” String Quartet. Even the more expansive, gentler Violin Concerto withholds the full melody from the solo instrument until the very end of the movement.
There are many recordings of Mozart’s piano quartets to choose from. Among my personal favorites are Rubinstein with the Guarneri Quartet and two fairly recent entries, one from the Leopold String Trio with Paul Lewis on Hyperion, and another from the Fauré Quartet on DG. This new release, however, with members of the Ysaÿe Quartet and pianist Jean-Claude Pennetier, is absolutely sumptuous, every bit as lavish, luxurious, and gorgeous as the package it comes in. I cannot praise it too highly. And for those passionate about repeats, you will be happy to know that not only do we get the commonly observed exposition repeats, but also the less-often observed development-recapitulation repeats. It’s still early, but this may make it onto my 2007 Want List. Definitely a must-have.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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