Piano Quartet No.1 in a minor, Op.43
Friedrich Kiel's Piano Quartet No.1 in a minor, Op.43, along with his two others, is among the best and the most important works for this ensemble. It should be remembered that up until the First World War, piano quartets were more frequently composed and performed than the now more often performed piano quintet. (For example, Mendelssohn wrote piano quartets but no quintets, Brahms wrote only one piano quintet but three piano quartets)
Writing of the chamber music of Friedrich Kiel (1821-1885), Wilhelm Altmann—perhaps the greatest of chamber music critics—notes that it was Kiel’s extreme modesty which kept him and his exceptional works from receiving the consideration they deserved. And what consideration did Altmann feel these works deserved? After mentioning Brahms and others, Altmann writes, “He produced a number of chamber works, which...need fear no comparison.” Altmann, himself, said that he found in Kiel’s chamber music a “never ending source of delight.” That his works remained relatively unknown was due mostly to his modesty but also, Altmann explains, to the high cost of the original editions.
Kiel was taught the rudiments of music and received his first piano lessons from his father but was in large part self-taught. Something of a prodigy, he played the piano almost without instruction at the age of six, and by his thirteenth year he had composed much music. Kiel eventually won a scholarship which allowed him to study in Berlin with the renowned theorist and teacher Siefried Dehn. By 1866, Kiel obtained a teaching position at the prestigious Stern Conservatory and was elevated to a professorship three years later. In 1870 he joined the faculty of the newly founded Hochschule für Musik which was shortly thereafter considered one of the finest music schools in Germany. Among his many students were Noskowski, Paderewski and Stanford. Kiel's hobby was mountaineering and at age 60--two years before his tragic death as the result of a traffic accident--he climbed Europe's second highest peak, Monte Rosa.
Kiel's First Piano Quartet dates from 1867. The magnificent first movement, Allegro moderato ma con spirito, begins with a lengthy, diffident and leisurely introduction, which takes its time building tension and interest before the heroic main theme, sung high in violin, is produced. The other strings join in while the piano plays a jaunty rhythmic accompaniment. An exotic development in the piano is interspersed between this, but then quickly leads to the triumphal march-like second theme. The second movement, Adagio con moto, is in the form of a simple, somewhat religious, song and provides excellent contrast with the preceding Allegro. Though mostly quiet, it is not without drama. The Scherzo, allegro con spirito, which follows, has a Beethovian feel, especially its rhythm. The superb finale, Vivace, is brimming with appealing melodies and clever ideas. The rhythm of the main theme recalls the last movement Mozart's K.515 C Major Viola Quintet, but Kiel gives it a Hungarian treatment! Next comes a melody which is the half-sister to a theme from Schubert's D.956 Cello Quintet, but after a few seconds, Kiel turns it inside out, twists it and sends it galloping off at breathless speed. The sure touch of a master composer is everywhere in evidence.
Out of print for more than a century, this work would be an unqualified success and audience pleaser in concert. Amateur music makers will surely get great fun out of having the chance to play such a sparkling work.