Fauré, Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor

October 31, 2017

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45 (1886)

Gabriel Fauré It has been said that Gabriel Fauré was the most important French Composer between Berlioz and Debussy, particularly in the genre of instrumental music. Opera dominated the French music scene for much for much of the 19th century until Saint-Saëns, Franck and a whole generation of late-Romantic French composers turned to writing sonatas and quartets. Over time, they established a new emerging school of French chamber music culminating in Debussy and Ravel with the turn of the 20th century. Fauré may well have been the most important force in this history. Within France, he is highly regarded; beyond France, he is known for a handful of beautiful pieces, but is otherwise elusive, a less than major composer that slips through the cracks. It is quite possible that from a sample of popular selections (e.g. the Pavane, Sicilienne, Dolly Suite, a few precious arts songs and some jewel-like miniatures for solo piano), one draws the quick (but erroneous) conclusion that Fauré was wonderfully French, poised and enchanting, but not so profound. But turning to his chamber music, one finds a compelling treasure trove comprising violin and cello sonatas, piano quartets and quintets, a piano trio and a final, late string quartet. Here is a master composer working in long forms with a supple originality that evolves into a significantly advanced, modern style quite independent of fads and schools of the time. Fauré was born in 1845 and died in 1924 and his life spanned an incredible period of musical development from Mendelssohn to Schoenberg. Eventually a great teacher, administrator, and director of the Paris Conservatoire, Fauré would count Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger among many noteworthy students. His pedagogy and his oeuvre would exert great influence on future generations and it is revealing to discover Fauré as the missing link between Saint-Saëns and Ravel, Franck and Debussy.

Fauré’s best chamber music includes his instrument: the piano. While the piano quintets represent Fauré’s more challenging late style and are very rarely played, the piano trio and the two piano quartets are not total strangers to the concert stage. The first piano quartet in C Minor (1883) is by far the most well known while encountering the second piano quartet in G Minor is a more special occasion. Written four years later in 1887, it is still of Fauré’s earlier period, somewhat similar in design and mood, but ultimately finer than the first. It bristles with energy and bewitches with beauty. It is written masterfully in a true chamber style with a classical movement plan beautifully interconnected by innumerable variations of a master motif revealed at the very beginning of the first movement (and echoed in the last bars of the finale). With this cyclic principle, modal tonalities, extended harmonies, rhythmic vitality, color, impressionistic tendencies and a pervasive French character, it is a crucial forebear of the famous string quartets of Debussy and Ravel still years in the future.

The quartet launches the first movement with a surging, shimmering energy using a motoric, ostinato figuration in the piano and a modal (neither major nor minor) melody forcefully announced by the strings in unison. The melody brightens, the unison texture blossoms into counterpoint and the “master motif” of the entire four-movement work is shown in resplendent light. This theme will occur in several variations (even within the first movement alone), each new and different in mood and atmosphere though changes in mode, key, harmony, rhythm and instrumentation. The movement sketches a kind of sonata form with two contrasting themes, the first full of motion and steady force, the second much more serene and poetic. The music features elegant linear part writing along with wonderfully emotive changes and contrasts.

The Scherzo is a sparkling tour de force: a moto perpetuo anchored in another motoric figuration in the bass of the piano, sharply punctuated by pizzicato and stabbing strings underneath a swift melody line racing in the treble, stepwise, sinuous and tinged with the minor, all together creating a kind of Mendelssohnian quicksilver urgency. As brief as it is fast, the scherzo’s three-part form is amortized across the space in a contrast between the languid, almost woozy swoons from the strings and the relentless running of the piano, undeterred. The string interjections turn out to be a number of variations on the “master motif” ingeniously interwoven into the nearly seamless fabric.

The slow movement is the longest and perhaps the most transcendent. All the motion and bluster from the scherzo is banished by a new mood of repose, spaciousness and poetic beauty. The music begins (and ends) as a magically transparent and intimate duo for piano and viola, wistful and ancient like a lost folksong with its misty modality. This is a languid dream that flows in and out of lush romantic ardor, by turns poised and warmly effusive, a very beautiful song in Fauré’s finest manner. The master motif seems largely absent here, or at least very cleverly disguised, a design trait shared by the slow movements in both the Debussy and Ravel quartets of the future.

The finale restores the dark key, the agitated piano ostinati, the unison strings and the forceful flow of the opening movement. Any quaint stereotypes of Fauré will be confounded by the comparatively emphatic drama and drive of the finale featuring a rhythmic muscularity more akin to Franck or Brahms and a perpetually unresolved harmonic searching that suggests Wagner in a much more modern language. Multiple variations of the “master motif” rise and fall until a startling coda transforms the music into a bright, almost ecstatic psychedelia foreshadowing Ravel’s piano trio, the music of Fauré’s student. Fauré’s second piano quartet is a true original, a revelation and a masterpiece.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.