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Program Notes: New Generations Artist & Janine Jansen

Friday, December 29, 2023

The International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht is not only a meeting place for established (chamber) musicians, also young talented violinists, violists and cellists such as the Belgian Pauline van der Rest, the American Hana Chang, the French-Dutch Sào Soulez Larivière and the Luxembourger with Dutch roots Benjamin Kruithof will have the opportunity to show themselves at the highest level with masterpieces by Moritz Moszkowski and Antonín Dvořák.

That Antonín Dvořák sometimes comes up in a list of composers who elevated chamber music in the nineteenth century in general and the piano quartet in particular is not surprising: although his Piano Quartet no. 2 in E-flat, opus 87 according to some critics is not his best work in the chamber music genre, it remains a piece that can certainly compete with predecessors such as Mendelssohn and Schumann. That Moritz Moszkowski is not mentioned is strange given his popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, but conceivable based on his work. The German composer of Polish-Jewish descent was widely acclaimed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On his death in 1925, a music magazine wrote disillusioned: ‘Moszkowski is dead! The music world has not experienced such a painful announcement since the deaths of composers like Chopin, Rubinstein and Liszt, of whom Moszkowski was a worthy successor.’ Moszkowski was therefore considered ‘the most successful salon composer today, a natural heir to Chopin.’ The fact that he is now forgotten is in the word ‘salon composer’. Moszkowski patented light-hearted unpretentious works that caught on immediately but fell short of the depth of many of his contemporaries. In addition, he was a more than excellent pianist. Yet we do Moszkowski a disservice if we dismiss his 1903 Suite for two violins and piano, opus 71, as a parlour piece. The glowing four-movement work can be read as a piano trio with the cello replaced by a second violin. The word suite is also somewhat misguided. It is more like a full-blown romantic four-movement sonata with a first movement in a disguised sonata form, a second movement with a lyrical melody in an elegant waltz tempo, a beautifully slow third movement and a finale that is as joyful as it is virtuosic. The work was so popular shortly after publication that the publisher actually commissioned a version for the standard piano trio. After Moszkowski’s death, it quickly disappeared from the concert stages, only to be rediscovered in abundance again in recent years.

Whereas Moszkowski more or less adhered to the piano trio tradition, Antonín Dvořák was captivated by the piano quartet. The man who gained fame mainly thanks to his last symphonies and his role as a booster of the use of folk music in his home country and the United States can boast quite a chamber music oeuvre with 12 string quartets, four piano trios, two piano quintets and two piano quartets alone. Yet many works have nowhere near the popularity of his symphonies. The same is unfortunately true of the two piano quartets he wrote in 1875 and 1889, respectively. The Second piano quartet in particular, which Dvořák composed after long insistence by his publisher Simrock, is a glowing discourse that, on the one hand, joins the tradition that runs from Mozart through Schubert and Schumann to Brahms and, on the other, reveals exactly what Dvořák is so good at. Take, for instance, the intense lyricism that emerges in the first movement in sonata form, or that wonderful slow movement in which five themes are presented that then pass by again in varied forms in the same order. The third movement is then again a ländler, a peasant dance that recalls Schubert’s work with a melancholic trio as the middle movement and in the last movement, a rhythmically rousing sonata-rondo, the gypsy influences that Dvořák is also known for come along. Dvořák described the seemingly endless flow of melodies in the Second piano quartet in a letter to his friend Alois Göbl as a relentless stream of divine inspiration: ‘Do you want to know what I’m doing? My head is full of it. If only everything could be written immediately! But it’s no use, I have to adjust my pace to what the hand can handle and the Lord God will grant the rest. Now I already have three movements of a new quartet with piano completely finished and the finale will be ready in a few days. It is unexpectedly easy and the melodies are coming to me in large numbers.’