The year 1842 saw Schumann compose in quick succession the three string quartets, the Piano Quintet, this Piano Quartet and the Phantasiestücke for piano trio. In many ways this evening’s work can be considered the creative double of the Piano Quintet, it shares the same key of E flat, the same extrovert approach to the combination of piano and strings – especially in the outer movements – and the same concern to link the movements by recalling a theme from an earlier movement.
Schumann’s preparation for his so-called Chamber Music Year included an in-depth study of counterpoint and fugue. Prior to 1842 he had already experimented with string quartets but not to his satisfaction. However back in 1828-9, when he was still a law student, he and three friends had formed a piano quartet, tackling a broad spectrum of piano quartets and trios by a wide range of composers. For this ensemble, Schumann wrote a Piano Quartet in C minor, to which he devoted considerable attention but never published. So the foundations for his dramatic chamber music activity in 1842 had been built up over a long period.
The work opens with a mysterious Sostenuto assai introduction that contains the seed from which the movement’s main theme will spring. This powerful theme fairly bursts upon us, while the staccato scales of the second subject allow no let up in the hard-driven progress of the exposition. The return of the introduction does give some pause before the development returns to the exuberance of the exposition in an even more imposing way as development and recapitulation merge into each other.
The nimble Scherzo clearly is an offering to Mendelssohn’s world of sprites. There are two brief and contrasting trios. The slow movement is a love-song led at first by the cello, before being joined by the violin in an exquisite duo. A deeply felt central episode with the texture of a chorale takes up the song before the love-song returns in the hands of the violin and viola, eventually giving way to the cello again. There follows a simply amazing coda, a prefiguring of the finale’s theme in a spiralling series of transpositions with an acute harmonic dislocation achieved by the cellist tuning his C-string a step lower. Like its counterpart in the Piano Quintet the finale is dominated by the energetic main theme and a series of episodes that find subtle ways to recall earlier movements, in particular the Andante. But in the end everything is overwhelmed by the insistent returns of the joyful rondo theme.