About this Recording
8.554274 - MOZART: Piano Quartets, K. 478 and K. 493

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet in G minor, K.478
Piano Quartet in E flat major, K.493

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756, the son of a court musician who, in the year of his youngest child's birth, published an influential book on violin-playing. Leopold Mozart rose to occupy the position of Vice-Kapellmeister to the Archbishop of Salzburg, but sacrificed his own creative career to that of his son, in whom he detected early signs of precocious genius. With the indulgence of his patron, he was able to undertake extended concert tours of Europe in which his son and elder daughter Nannerl were able to astonish audiences. The boy played both the keyboard and the violin and could improvise and soon write down his own compositions.

Childhood that had brought Mozart signal success was followed by a less satisfactory period of adolescence largely in Salzburg under the patronage of a new and less sympathetic Archbishop. Like his father, Mozart found opportunities far too limited at home, while chances of travel were now restricted. In 1777, when leave of absence was not granted, he gave up employment in Salzburg to seek a future elsewhere, but neither Mannheim nor Paris, both musical centres of some importance, had anything for him. His Mannheim connections, however, brought a commission for an opera in Munich in 1781, but after its successful staging he was summoned by his patron to Vienna. There Mozart's dissatisfaction with his position resulted in a quarrel with the Archbishop and dismissal from his service.

The last ten years of Mozart's life were spent in Vienna in precarious independence of both patron and immediate paternal advice, a situation aggravated by an imprudent marriage. Initial success in the opera-house and as a performer was followed, as the decade went on, by increasing financial difficulties. By the time of his death in December 1791, however, his fortunes seemed about to change for the better, with the success of the German opera The Magic Flute, and the possibility of increased patronage.

The piano quartet, which reached its eighteenth-century apogee in the two quartets of Mozart, had its origin in the keyboard concerto, here in the reduced instrumentation of a chamber concerto, as in the work of Mannheim composers or of Johann Christian Bach, some of whose keyboard sonatas Mozart had, as a boy, transcribed as chamber concertos, accompanied by two violins and bass. In Vienna he wrote two piano quartets. The first of these, the Piano Quartet in G minor, K.478, bears the date 16th October 1785 and was completed on that date in Vienna, to be published there by Franz Anton Hoffmeister. By 20th November Mozart was writing to Hoffmeister with some urgency, seeking money. By 2nd December Leopold Mozart, in a letter to his daughter, gives news of the receipt of the work, together with copies of the quartets Mozart had recently dedicated to Haydn. In the following August he included the quartet in a list of compositions sent to Sebastian Winter in Donaueschingen, from which it was hoped that Winter's employer, Prince von F├╝rstenberg, would make his choice. This choice did not, in the end, include the Piano Quartet. It was said that Hoffmeister complained that he could not sell the new work, intended as the first of a set of three, because it was too difficult, and that he allowed Mozart to keep the advance he had received for the whole commission.

The key of G minor is a dramatic one and the Piano Quartet starts with a united opening figure, to which the piano offers a reply. The re-appearance of the opening figure elicits a further version of it from the piano, returning in what immediately follows. The piano introduces the B flat major second subject, to which the string instruments have something to add, the substance of this taken up by the piano. There is a central development, with versions of the opening figure of the movement leading to the recapitulation and the concluding section, with its emphatic ending. The piano introduces the B flat major slow movement, its rapid figuration passed to the violin in accompaniment, with a secondary theme in the dominant, making its first appearance with the string instruments. The final Rondo is in G major, its principal theme first stated by the piano, before being passed to the violin and viola, an octave apart. A secondary episode in D major finds a place for triplet rhythms in music fertile in melodic invention that seems, as so often, to be more than prodigal with its material. The quartet, as its choice of opening key suggests, is a demanding work, starting in tragedy but ending in sheer delight.

The Piano Quartet in E flat major, K.493, was completed on 3rd June 1786, a month after the first performance of the new opera The Marriage of Figaro. It was published by Artaria in the summer of 1787. The first movement opens less ominously than that of the earlier quartet, allowing delicate contrast between the piano and the other instruments, now even more closely integrated in the chamber-music texture of the work. The piano begins the second subject, which is soon taken from it by the violin, which has more to add, before the exposition is completed. The development makes further use of the figure that opens the subsidiary material, before the recapitulation. The slow movement is an A flat major Larghetto, its gentle principal theme introduced by the piano. The tripartite structure again finds room for subtle interplay between the instruments, with the piano never allowed to overwhelm its partners. The quartet ends with an Allegretto, a Rondo with rhythmic variety in its contrasting episodes, rich in its melodic material, if marginally less demanding than its predecessor.

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