Planning the February concert – The Inside Story:
The excellent South African piano duo, Luis Magalhaes and Nina Schumann, were to be on tour in Wisconsin in late January and that presented an unusual and exciting opportunity: why not invite them to play in Milwaukee with the FAQ while they are in Wisconsin so close by? But that created a huge programming challenge: though we had just performed the only quintet ever written for bayan-accordion and string quartet, had any composer ever written a piece for two pianos and string quartet? During my 32 years in the Fine Arts Quartet, I certainly had never heard of any such composition.
I love to do research, so it didn’t take me long to head to various libraries (and the internet, of course) to see what I could find. As it turned out, I found virtually nothing at first for 2 pianos and quartet except for a piece by the American composer Jerome Moss. But my delight at that discovery waned after I listened to a recording of it and found it sounding too commercial. Now, what?
Then, by accident, I stumbled upon an article written about a forgotten composer I had only a vague knowledge of: Jan Ladislav Dussek. He had a fascinating, dramatic life, and though he was acquainted with the celebrities of his time (e.g. Marie Antoinette and a young Napoleon), he, like Caravaggio, had to flee one perilous situation after another. Dussek seems to have been a close friend and musical confidant of his patron, the Royal Highness Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia and therefore, on Oct 9, 1806, the 34 year old Prince was one of the pianists who performed the world premiere of Dussek’s new piano concerto for 2 pianos and orchestra (probably Dussek was the other pianist). The next day, the Prince died in the Battle of Saalfeld fighting against Napoleon’s army. That beautiful concerto is rarely performed nowadays, yet Felix Mendelssohn made his second public performance performing it in 1822 at the age of 13 (perhaps with his pianist sister Fanny), and it has been recorded a few times, notably by the great conductor Sir John Barbirolli in 1960.
In reading about the world premiere performance of the concerto, what especially caught my attention, however, was the revelation that the Prince and presumably Dussek performed with string quartet instead of orchestra. Indeed, the work was first published by Pleyel around 1807 with the title, “Grande Simphonie Concertante pour Deux Forté Piano avec Accompagnement de deux Violons, Alto, Basse”. Here’s a link to a photo of the sheet music cover.
That intrigued me, of course, but I was sure I’d never find the ancient sheet music parts for that original chamber version. But I was wrong! The Biblioteca Nacional de Espana had preserved all but one of those original Pleyel parts in manuscript form, but there was no extant score of the chamber version. Still, we’ve been able to piece together everything we need for our concert Feb 1 – which may, indeed, be the first public performance of the chamber version since the early 19th Century!
Here’s an interesting article on Dussek’s crazy life.
The other works on the program are special, too, although better known. Mozart’s String Quartet K464 in A Major is gorgeous and is one of my favorites. However, it also happens to be one of Mozart’s most sophisticated, complex, and intellectual quartets and therefore, may not be easy for the audience to understand on first hearing. Beethoven, who loved the work and used it as a model for his own A Major quartet Op.18, No.5, apparently told his pupil Czerny that Mozart was saying to the world, “Look what I could produce – if only you were ready for it.”
Finally, I wanted to give the fine duo-piano team a chance to perform one piece without us. Among the choices they offered, I picked John Adams’s minimalist piece for 2 pianos written in 1996 called “Hallelujah Junction”. It should be loud, lively, and a lot of fun to listen to.