GABRIEL FAURE wrote two piano quartets, the first of which (in C Minor, op. 15) is a great favorite in chamber music circles, loved for its warm eloquence. The G Minor piano quartet, op. 45, is less often performed — less beautiful, even — but perhaps even more powerful in its effect. Although Fauré is well known (and rightly so) for his supple and atmospheric harmonic language, he was also quite a formal stickler, deeply trained in counterpoint and the techniques of Renaissance music. The Second Piano Quartet (harmonies notwithstanding) derives much of its great strength from the strict, arching span of its melodic lines.
Each movement begins with a setting of undertone from the piano alone. The sweep of the first movement is generated almost instantaneously in a rapid crescendo from piano to forte, which washes the strings’ long melody up to the surface. This roar of notes reappears, sometimes in full and sometimes in shadow, throughout the movement, and finally subsides at its end. A febrile variant of the first movement’s undertone begins the second movement – a sinister scherzo somewhat like the one in Brahms’ C Major Trio. The third movement, Adagio non troppo, has an undertone as well, but it is, by contrast, one of deep calm. Fauré wrote that he had (inadvertently) found the sound for the piano in a memory of distant bells: “The slow movement of my second quartet is one of the few places where I realise that, without really meaning to, I recalled a peal of bells we used to hear of an evening, drifting over to Montgauzy from a village called Cadirac whenever the wind blew from the West.”
The last movement takes a much more determined stance, bringing back the arched unisons from the strings, and clearing the fantastic air of the middle two movements.
Biographically speaking, not much is known about Fauré’s work on the G Minor Piano Quartet. It was probably begun in 1885-6, and was first performed in 1887, with the composer at the piano.