“I see the genre of the piano quartet as something very special – because of its own particular timbre,” says violist Micha Afkham, who founded the Berlin Piano Quartet together with his Philharmoniker colleagues violinist Christophe Horak and 1st principal cello Bruno Delepelaire, plus the pianist Kim Barbier. “With the piano, we strings need to integrate into the overall sound in a very different way. That’s a new challenge for me!” The interaction of keyboard instrument and strings opened up unexpected tonal opportunities to the performers: they can sound as intimate as a string quartet, as virtuoso as a piano trio or as symphonic as a small orchestra. A delightful line-up which has inspired almost all the great composers since the First Viennese School.
The four musicians open their programme with a composer known only as a symphonist and is really not associated with chamber music: Gustav Mahler. His Piano Quartet in A minor, only the first movement of which has survived, was composed during his studies at the conservatory in Vienna. An early work that gives no indication of the depths of despair that later are so characteristic of Mahler’s musical language, but – very closely aligned to the Romantic tradition – it strikes a melancholy and wistful tone.
In contrast, the Piano Quartet in E flat major, which Robert Schumann composed in his “chamber music year” of 1842, is a reference work of the genre – due to the subtle thematic construction which brings all four movements together, and the balanced treatment of the individual instruments which interact as equal partners. Directly connected to Robert Schumann is Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor, in which the composer expresses his despair over his unrequited love for Schumann’s wife Clara. Feeling like an excluded third party in a love triangle, he speaks of a “Werther mood” he gives to the entire piano quartet.