The earliest true piano quartets are the two works Mozart wrote in 1785 for the publisher Hoffmeister. But there were precursors. For example, in the 1760s and 1770s, in London, several composers, among whom Giardini, Schobert and Johann Christian Bach, wrote keyboard quartets. But those were mostly with harpsichord and have a very different soundscape from the Mozart quartets which were conceived for the pianoforte. More importantly and decisively, there was no equality yet between the instruments (the key element of true ensemble music for piano and strings in any combination).
In fact, the piano quartet developed almost simultaneously with the piano trio and may like the piano trio find its origin in the accompanied sonata (by adding one extra string instrument). Haydn is often mentioned as the inventor if the piano trio (he wrote about 45 piano trios, in the 1760s, 1780s and again in the 1790s), but these are all in a keyboard dominated style. That all instruments were treated as equals came first about in the works of Mozart, tentatively in the Divertimento in B Flat of 1776, and assuredly in 1786 when Mozart wrote a series of three great piano trios. As we saw above, that was at the same time that Mozart also wrote the first true piano quartets. Mozart, therefore, can stand as the originator of both genres and their first successful composer.
However, in the Classical period the piano quartet remained a marginal genre of house music and it is only in the Romantic period, with works by Ries, Hummel, Louis Ferdinand, Kuhlau, Kreutzer and the (very) young Mendelssohn, that the piano quartet comes into its own as as a true form of chamber music where all instruments are treated as soloists. Just as with the piano quintet, it was Schumann who wrote a great Romantic piano quartet and is responsible for the popularity of the genre in the second half of the 19th c. and first decades of the 20th c. Composers who wrote great piano quintets, often also wrote piano quartets that belong to the top of the canon: after Schumann, we also find again Brahms, Dvořák, Fauré, etc.
Here is my list of best piano quartets.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor K478 (1785)
Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor was the first of three piano quartets commissioned by the publisher Hoffmeister. But as the public found the work too difficult, the publisher withdrew from the venture before all three quartets had been written (Mozart finished the second quartet for his own pleasure). In Mozart's time piano quartets, piano trios and violin and cello sonatas were conceived as domestic music for keyboard, accompanied by one or more string instruments. In middle and upper-class families, the daughters received a solid musical training as keyboard players; the sons were violinists or cellists, but on a much more basic level, as they had many others things to learn, such as fencing and horse-riding. Mozart blithely disregarded the limitations of such amateur players and wrote music meant for professionals. The First Piano Quartet, starting with a unison opening gesture, boasts a complex and passionate first movement. Mozart treats all four instrument as equal, a novel development. The second movement, Larghetto, is particularly delicate and lovely and brings the necessary balm. The finale is an inventive Rondo, with one hummable tune after another. This work is a true gem, Mozart at his most fetching.
Recording listened to: Malcolm Bilson (Fortepiano), Elizabeth Wilcock (Violin), Jan Schlapp (Viola) and Tomothy Mason (Cello) on Archiv Produktion (with Piano Quartet K493; on authentic instruments).
2. Friedrich Kuhlau, Piano Quartet No. 3 in G Minor Op. 108 (1829)
Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832) was a north-German born, Danish composer. He was an admirer of Beethoven and also shares the period style with Ries and Hummel. His dramatic works were very popular at the Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen. Alongside these operas, Kuhlau wrote many chamber compositions for the flute and instrumental works for the piano. The present Piano Quartet (his third one) dates from the end of his life and was published posthumously, although Kuhlau played the piano at its first performance in 1829 (with Moscheles who reported on it among the public). It is optimistic music in the grand style with a virtuoso piano part that according to Moscheles' testimony at the premiere proved a bit above Kuhlau's abilities. The Scherzo is in second position; the slow third movement is the emotional heart of the quartet - starting very friendly, it takes on surprisingly dramatic features.
Recording listened to: esBé String Quartet with Andreas Meyer-Hermann, piano, on CPO (with String Quartet Op 122).
3. Robert Schumann, Piano Quartet in E Flat Major Op. 47 (1842)
Schumann's Piano Quartet has been called the "creative double" of his Piano Quintet, also in E-flat major; it is one of the most popular works in this genre. The work was composed in 1842, during Schumann's "Chamber Music Year." The Piano Quartet is a lyrical score, with the piano dominating. It has been said that Schumann was influenced by Beethoven's Op. 127 string quartet when composing this piano quartet. He starts with a solemn introduction before venturing into the main Allegro ma non troppo. Elements of that introduction return in the development. The second movement is an elfin Scherzo in the style of Mendelssohn. The deeply romantic Andante cantabile is characterized by an almost ecstatic melody. The final Vivace has winning melodies, but also solid contrapuntal writing. Although the Piano Quartet is outwardly joyful, it also harbors a general atmosphere of restlessness.
Recording listened to: Fitzwilliam String Quartet with Richard Burnett, pianoforte, on Amon Ra (with Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata No 1).
4. Johannes Brahms, Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor Op. 25 (1861)
Although Schumann's Piano Quartet was much praised, I believe that the ultimate boost for the rise of the Piano Quartet was given by Johannes Brahms, who wrote three very successful works in the genre, two in 1861 and one in 1875. We will look here at his first quartet in G Minor that was published 1861 after a gestation period of about four years. The somberly dramatic and spacious first movement begins with a declamatory statement. It combines troubled Romantic vocabulary with Classical symphonic control. The second movement is called "Intermezzo," but has the nature of a gentle scherzo. The main theme is based on Robert Schumann's "Clara motif," used by Brahms to hint privately at his own love for Clara Schumann. The slow movement consists of an ardent song that however gradually develops into a military march. The finale, Rondo alla Zingarese, is a riot of madcap Gypsy music, full of wild abandon. This piano quartet was Brahms' first published one; it was preceded by a youth work, and, more importantly, followed by two more piano quartets, one - a very sunny work, but also Brahms' longest chamber work - in the same year, and a final one in 1875. Brahms definitely put the piano quartet on the musical map. In 1937, Arnold Schoenberg made a version for orchestra of the First Piano Quartet, bringing out the orchestral sonority with the help of massed strings and brass.
Recording listened to: Emanuel Ax (piano), Isaac Stern (Violin), Jaime Laredo (Viola) and Yo-yo Ma (Cello) on Sony Classical (with Piano Quartets Op. 25 and Op. 60).
5. Josef Rheinberger, Piano Quartet in E Flat Major Op. 38 (1870)
Liechtenstein-born Josef Rheinberger worked all his life in Munich where he was a professor at the conservatory. He was especially good in chamber music, and one of his earliest works was the present Piano Quartet. The big-boned opening movement starts with brooding strings, but instead of the storm which seems to be brewing, a joyous melody breaks through that makes you want to hum along. The deeply romantic Adagio is a dialogue between piano and strings and this is followed by a swinging Menuetto. The Allegro finale in rondo-form is built on a capricious theme, but this movement also contains some excellent contrapuntal writing. Until WWI, this was one of the most popular piano quartets, after which it inexplicably fell out of the repertoire.
Recording listened to: Orchester-Akademie des Berliner Philharmonisches Orkesters on Thorofon (with Cello Sonata and Horn Sonata).
6. Camille Saint-Saëns, Piano Quartet in B Flat Major Op. 41 (1875)
The 1870s witnessed a flourishing of chamber works by French composers. Prior to this decade, opera reigned in France, and little opportunity existed for French composers to have their instrumental works performed. But thanks to the founding of the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871, dedicated to the promotion of new French instrumental music, young French composers of the 1870s were stimulated to write chamber music, for which an audience now seemed assured. Saint-Saëns was a notable contributor to the genre. The Piano Quartet starts with a sprightly movement that is also lyrical in a typically French way. It exudes an overall sense of serenity and ease and is in lucid sonata form. The Andante maestoso contrasts rhythmical passages on the piano with choral- and fugue-like music in the strings, calling Bach to mind and also revealing Saint-Saëns' background in organ and church music. The frolicsome third movement is a whirlwind scherzo in the form of a rondo. The quartet closes with a complexly structured finale, a vigorous rondo in which themes from the previous movements are brought back in a cyclical way, but which also leads to a suitably rousing ending after traveling from D Minor back to the B Flat Major of the first movement. Note that the climax of the whole work has been placed in this final movement, instead of the first movement as was often the case in previous times. This piano quartet was actually the second one completed by Saint-Saëns, as he wrote an earlier one at the beginning of the 1850s, a youth work that he however kept in his drawer.
Recording listened to: Quartetto Avos on Brilliant Classics (with Piano Quartet in E Major).
7. Vincent D'Indy, Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 7 (1878)
Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) was sent to Law School by his family but, intent on becoming a composer, he eventually managed to be accepted by César Franck as his pupil. Besides his fine works, D'Indy left his mark also in another way on French music: in 1900 he founded the Schola Cantorum, the most important music school in France after the Paris Conservatoire. d'Indy wrote the Piano Quartet soon after having started his studies with Franck and it inevitably shows the influence of that last composer (who wrote a famous Piano Quintet but never tried his hand at a quartet). The first movement, cast in sonata form, consists of an almost unceasing piano part and thick string writing. It begins with a dark melody played by the cello over the rushing accompaniment of the piano. The slow, tragic second movement, titled “Ballade,” consists of two main themes that alternate and combine. The very French third movement is a joyous and energetic rondo. It begins in a festive mood with the rhythm just as important as the melody.
Recording listened to: Caroline Weichert (Piano), Marietta Kratz (Violin), Thomas Oepen (Viola) and Bernard Gmelin (Cello) on Koch Schwann (with Sextet Op. 92 and Violin Sonata Op. 59).
8. Gabriel Fauré, Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor Op. 15 (1879)
Fauré's First Piano Quartet was written almost simultaneously with the above one by d'Indy, at a time the composer was already forty years old (the low opus number is confusing). The first movement possesses a cantabile character and great refinement of texture. Much of the musical material stems organically from the opening measures. The whole movement is pervaded by optimism, both in the exposition and development of the piece. The second movement is a delightfully playful scherzo. The third movement is a dark and mournful Adagio, with the strings frequently playing unisono. The fourth movement is in sonata form and incorporates vigorous dotted rhythms and contrasting themes to provide a suitable culmination for the whole quartet. This Piano Quartet is counted among the most popular ones ever written, together with those by Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák. In 1886, Fauré wrote his Second Piano Quartet, another superbly crafted and melodically generous work.
Recording listened to: Quartetto Beethoven di Roma on Dynamic (with Piano Quartet Op. 45).
9. Antonín Dvořák, Piano Quartet No. 2 in E Flat Major Op. 87 (1889)
Dvořák started writing this Piano Quartet immediately after finishing the Piano Quintet in 1887, but it took some time to complete. He had in fact composed an earlier piano quartet in 1880, but that work had never enjoyed much success. The Opus 87 piano quartet, as it finally came about, is a sprightly work full of abundant melodies. It is a prime example of the composer's mature style. The first movement in sonata form is characterized by a brisk main subject which is presented right at the start in strong unison from all the instruments. The piano, which is quite independent in this movement, answers with something completely different. At a certain moment, Dvořák pretends to be repeating the exposition, but in fact skips off into the development. The luxuriant slow movement is one of Dvořák's most beautiful. An expressive cello solo establishes a magical mood here. The third movement, grazioso, features a melancholy waltz, just like the similar movement in Dvořák's Eight Symphony in G Minor. The final movement is also in dance meter, with a dazzling rhythmic main theme, bringing us after much dialogue between the four instruments to a convincing ending in the major key.
Recording listened to: Menahem Pressler, piano, with Emerson String Quartet on Deutsche Gramophon (with Piano Quintet).
10. Arthur Foote, Piano Quartet in C Major Op. 23 (1890)
The Piano Quatet was one of Arthur Foote's most often performed works - Foote alone played it at least forty times in public concerts. It was in the repertoire of many well-known quartets in Europe and America. True to C Major, this piano quartet starts in a celebratory mood, in a lively tempo, with a movement that is sunny and full of good spirits. The Adagio which follows after a breezy Scherzo features a sweet melody which is both haunting and unforgettable. It has been called a joyous theme of thanksgiving. The Finale is clear and spontaneous, full of good sense. Foote's Piano Quartet is benevolent and compassionate in character, rather then passionate, heroic, sensuous or hysterical. Foote is a melodist like Schubert and it is again unbelievable that this fine music has dropped out of concert programs.
Recording listened to: Da Vinci Quartet with James Barbagallo, piano, on Marco Polo (with String Quartet No 1, etc.).
11. Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Piano Quartet No. 2 in B Flat Major Op. 95 (1895)
The Austrian composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) was a great admirer of Brahms. That is very clear in the Second Piano Quartet which moreover was written when Brahms was on his deathbed and therefore meant as a tribute to the great master. That is especially clear in the gripping but also economically shaped first movement, which starts with a series of sharp chords which serve as core material for the whole Allegro. The Adagio (called "Notturno") is a pearl in Herzogenberg's oeuvre, a work full of dreamy intimacy. The subtitle perhaps refers to the fact that also Herzogenberg felt that he was in the evening of his life - this Piano Quartet would be his last chamber work. The capricious Scherzo features a central section which suddenly changes to pastoral music. The rousing last movement is based on an attractive folkloric theme with a Hungarian flavor, but also reprises the themes from the previous movements to bring the quartet to conclusion. An earlier piano quartet was written by Von Herzogenberg in 1891-1892; it also has strong Brahmsian qualities and was dedicated to the memory of his wife, who died shortly before the work was composed.
Recording listened to: Andreas Frohlich, piano, with Belcanto Strings on CPO (with String Trio, etc.).
12. Cark Reinecke, Piano Quartet No. 2 in D Major Op. 272 (1904)
A four-movement composition which at only twenty minutes is very concise in its dimensions. It was written by Reinecke when he was already eighty years old. Reinecke was a great concert pianist, conductor and professor at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he educated several new generations, among them Albeniz, Bruch, Delius, Grieg, Janacek, Reznicek, Röntgen, Sinding and Svendsen, to name only a few of the composers. And as a composer Reinecke himself was in his time regarded as a first-rate master. It is due to our lopsided and shortsighted way of writing musical history, where only the stepping stones to "new" developments are counted (which in the end led to nothing, for atonality was a dead end) that Reinecke as transmitter of the important tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann has dropped out of the canon. The educator Reinecke also shows himself in the present piano quartet for it is dubbed "in the easier style." At a time when new chamber music was so difficult it could only be played by advanced professionals (the opposite to the situation in the time of Mozart), Reinecke tried to reach out to amateur musicians. That doesn't mean this is not a beautiful and interesting quartet. It starts with a warm romantic Allegro, after which follows a short Scherzo. The meditative Adagio is the lyrical center of the work, which then concludes with a charming Rondo Allegretto. In contrast to other composers who around this time loaded their scores with heavy pathos, Reinecke has achieved a quartet of great freshness and classical charm. An earlier piano quartet was written already half a century earlier, in 1853, by Reinecke, superbly crafted music in the vein of Mendelssohn.
Recording listened to: Linos-Ensemble on CPO (with Piano Quartet Op. 34 and Piano Quintet).
13. Gustav Jenner, Piano Quartet in F Major (1905)
Gustav Jenner (1865-1920) was the only formal composition pupil of Johannes Brahms (he studied with Brahms during the years 1888 to 1895). He worked for most of his life as Musical Director and conductor at the University of Marburg, despite invitations to more prestigious posts. Jenner also wrote two volumes of reminiscences about Brahms. Not surprisingly, his music has a strong Brahmsian imprint, but it is always finely wrought. That is certainly the case with Jenner's Piano Quartet, which with its strongly symphonic sound even calls Brahms' Third Symphony to mind. The large opening Allegro is characterized by a spacious and optimistic first theme, and a second theme reminding one of "fin de siecle" Vienna. The second movement contains a quotation from Schubert's First Piano Trio and grips the listener with its finely nuanced dialogue and ingenuous treatment. After a muscular Scherzo with heavy accents in the low register of the piano and cello follows the Vivace non troppo finale, which is rich in variation, such as a short "alla Zingharese" Hungarian rhapsody. Due to his personal modesty and the demanding education by the strict Brahms, Jenner had only few of his compositions published, but I am sure that Brahms would have approved of the present piano quartet!
Recording listened to: Mozart Piano Quartet on CPO (complete chamber works).
14. Theodore Dubois, Piano Quartet in A Minor (1907)
Dubois' Piano Quartet has been praised for its lyricism, clarity of form and the appeal of its thematic material. A tempestuous breeze blows through the whole first movement, which starts out with a sweeping phrase in the cello, taken up by violin and viola, and supported by a breathless piano. Only the second theme brings some serenity. The slow second movement starts with a beautiful melody played on the violin, which later on is contrasted with more rhythmic material. The third movement, Allegro leggiero, is in the spirit of a scherzo but in binary meter and consists of a bouncy dialogue between piano and strings. The finale is built and developed with different themes and motives from preceding movements, making it a sort of synthetic summary of the work, as was common in France at this time. The first theme, for example, is a rhythmic variation of the opening theme of the first movement. The coda brings the quartet to a brilliant close.
Recording listened to: Trio Hochelaga with Jean-luc Plourde, alto, on Atma Classique (with Piano Quintet).
15. Max Reger, Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Minor Op. 133 (1914)
The German composer, organist, pianist and teacher Max Reger (1873-1916) was the greatest writer of complex counterpoint after Bach. His music is often dense and complex. The Second Piano Quartet is less difficult than the First Piano Quartet Op. 113 of 1910. In contrast to that previous, symphonic quartet, it aims at chamber music clarity. Reger's usual, heavy chromaticism is here supported by tenderness and sweetness. The string lines are handled as a homogeneous body, doubling up in pairs or playing in unison. The piano part uses the full range of the instrument. The emotions in this quartet are muted and the first movement Allegro con passione is tempered by melancholy. The Scherzo is unusually airy but has also a certain eeriness in the trio. The solemn Largo con gran espressione suggests sustained meditation, or a prayer. The finale is full of a grim kind of humor but also a feeling of resignation. The Piano Quartet was written when Reger was recuperating from a severe burnout as conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, a position he gave up to devote himself to teaching at the Leipzig Conservatory. Unfortunately, Reger kept up an impossibly heavy schedule (also composing many masterworks in these years) and he died of a heart attack in 1916.
Recording listened to: Clausius Tanski, piano, with Mannheim String Quartet on MDG (with Three Duos for Two Violins).
16. Arnold Bax, Piano Quartet in One Movement (1922)
Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was born in London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. As a man of private means, he didn't make much of a career as performer (although he was a talented pianist) and also took his time establishing himself as a composer. As a young man, Bax soaked up Irish and Celtic influences which can be heard in much of his music. Besides a series of great symphonies, Bax was also from the first a composer of chamber music. Bax was launched on the musical scene after the Great War, when he was already in his forties, and that is also the period from which the Piano Quartet stems. It is a grim and aggressive work, in one movement lasting just over twelve minutes, typical of those difficult postwar years when - shocked by the great massacre of the war - contented Brahmsian music was no longer a viable option. Bax later adapted the work for piano and orchestra and then gave it the title "Saga Fragment." Indeed, Civil War had also engulfed Ireland at the time of writing.
Recording listened to: John McCabe, piano, with the English String Quartet on Chandos (with String Quartet No 1 and Harp Quartet).
17. Joaquín Turina, Piano Quartet in A Minor Op. 67 (1931)
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was born in Seville and studied in Madrid and Paris (from 1905 to 1914). He took composition lessons from Vincent d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum of Paris, and like his contemporary and countryman Manuel de Falla befriended Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Turina's compositions often draw on the folklore and guitar style of Spain and that is also true for the Piano Quartet. The quartet has an unusual movement sequence of Lento - Vivo - Andante; the movements are thematically linked. After a slow introduction, the first movement sets out with a main theme in a swaying rhythm. The violin leads in alternation with the piano, but there is also an appealing section in which the cello takes the lead with high notes. The second movement has a dance-like and folkloristic character. The last movement has a rhapsodic character and brings back melodies from the first movement as well.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Variable on CPO (with Piano Quintet etc.).
18. George Enescu, Piano Quartet No. 2, Op. 30 (1944)
The Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955) was educated in Vienna and at the Paris Conservatoire. His international career spanned both Romania and France, although in the latter part of his life he solely resided in France. Much of Enescu's music was influenced by Romanian folk music. The Second Piano Quartet was written in 1943-44 in the memory of Enescu's teacher Gabriel Fauré, marking the twentieth anniversary of his death. It is a refined work that demonstrates the density of thought and subtlety of expression of the mature Enescu. The Allegro moderato has a brooding unease, also due to the elusiveness of the sense of key. The Andante pensieroso et expressivo is the most French in style, and has a more animated central section. The agitated closing movement generates momentum to bring the work to a powerful conclusion. The Romanian folk influences are rarefied to an advanced degree in this quartet. Enescu also uses the strings in a for him typical continuum of sound. The piano complements rather than opposes the writing for the strings. The Piano Quartet No. 2 was in 1947 premiered in Washington D.C., thanks to the sponsorship of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.
Recording listened to: The Solomon Ensemble on Naxos (with Piano Quintet).
[Incorporates some information from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]