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Fauré’s First Piano Quartet was three years in the making – 1876 to 1879 – and was premiered in February 1880 at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris. Despite its key, the Quartet in C minor is full of warmth and optimism. The strings launch into the first theme, then stretch out into a lyrical second theme, while canonic development, whole tone passages, and fragmented and imitated material makes a fluid transition into a delicate, flowing middle theme, then a return to the dotted opening theme, all without fanfare. Pizzicato strings introduce the weird little piano melody of the second movement, a funny little piece in which the ensemble plays with contrasts – E-flat major versus C minor, triple versus duple, exuberant versus barely perceptible – as the theme is broken up by sudden and enormous leaps.
Fauré’s harmonic innovations can clearly be heard in the Adagio movement. Close harmonies and the hushed, almost throaty quality of the opening gives way to a melody that sounds just like a sunrise after a long storm. Unisons fall away to solo piano, then come fragments of theme, and finally a return to unison. The line creeps lower despite a persistent luminescence in the piano, and ends with a harmonic taffy-pull of foreboding suspensions. The Allegro molto – the current version is an 1883 rewrite of the original – has the violin and viola dovetailing moving lines over triplets in the piano, as the cello supports the upper strings and extends the range of this dramatic finale.
— Meg Ryan is a flutist and music writer, and a former Publications Assistant for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.