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On the basis of his better-known works - e.g., the Requiem, many songs, the Pavane - the music of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) can be properly characterized as restrained, refined, subtly expressive, aloof, the work of an elegant, fastidious musician. To anyone unprepared for a passionate Fauré, the temperamental eruption with which his Second Piano Quartet opens is a genuine ear-opener. Unison strings declaiming a forceful melody against agitated harmonic figures in the piano creates an atmosphere of high drama that is quite alien to the generally held perception of Fauré's music.
An imposing composition written in 1886, the Quartet presents Fauré operating within time-honored Classical structures, evoking many of the era's salon niceties while engaging an impressive level of emotional intensity and anticipating somewhat the Impressionism-to-come of Debussy. What is perhaps most admirable about the work is that, without undue pretension, it makes an imposing, deeply felt personal statement. No less important, its scoring achieves the ideal of chamber music in striking a genuinely equal balance among the four instruments.
Fauré's teacher, Camille Saint-Saëns, once said: "The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colors, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music." With this statement as a criterion, it can be said that Fauré understood the art of music very well, indeed. There is nothing inelegant about the Quartet's muscular opening, yet by comparison the lyrical secondary material more fully represents Saint-Saëns' description. The Fauré of the tranquil and limpid alternates frequently with the vital main theme. At this theme's last appearance a key center is studiously avoided, and not until the last few gentle measures does the key of G major break through the chromatic wanderings.
The second movement is almost all quirky, syncopated activity, with the piano purveying the skittish main theme against its own constantly repeated left-hand accompaniment figure and strong pizzicatos in the strings. At one point, as the piano extends the main theme, the strings provide a distorted version of the first movement's main theme as a countermelody. The proceedings have a tinge of the surreal about them, and when they evaporate into thin air at the end, they have set the scene for the sharp contrast of the serene poetry of the Adagio third movement, a movement Aaron Copland described as "intensity on a background of calm." There is much of an elegiac nature here, and the calm is palpable, but when intensity appears it is insistent, broad, and vital. Although the piano is fully deployed, the ethereal quality of the Adagio obtains from the strings, with emphasis on the alto instrument. As Fauré's student Charles Koechlin observed, "the viola would have to be invented for this Adagio if it did not already exist."
The high-energy finale states its case in terms that reveal Fauré's distinctive arsenal of strengths: superior craftsmanship, tastefulness, refined eloquence.
- Orrin Howard served as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years. He continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.