Programme Notes


Emma Abbate, piano
Fenella Humphreys, violin
Gary Pomeroy, viola
Cara Berridge, cello

Adrian Sutton Trio Dances for String Trio
Schumann Piano Quartet in E flat op 47
Fauré Piano Quartet no 1 in C minor op 15

Programme notes written by Donald Judge

Adrian Sutton (1967-): Trio Dances for String Trio

Adrian Sutton is an Olivier award-winning British composer. Many people will have heard his music, maybe without recognising his name: he wrote the scores for the theatrical productions of War Horse (due at The Lowry in the Autumn), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Coram Boy among others. But he also has a large and varied output of concert music. In 2022 he announced not only his diagnosis with an incurable cancer, but that he had booked the Royal Festival Hall for a concert of his work – he described it not as a swan-song but a taking stock –  that would include his Violin Concerto, yet to be written. It was premiered by Fenella Humphreys and the RPO, conductor Michael Seal, on 28 June 2023. Adrian described the previous six months as the most productive of his life as he underwent chemotherapy that would hopefully extend his life. With grim humour, he told how hours in the chemotherapy suite were ideal for orchestration, once he could filter out Radio 2. Sketching his ideas needed more solitude, made difficult by the number of invites to see friends and enjoy meals out that he received. Adrian is still living, defiantly positive, working and tweeting (mainly his appreciation of musicians performing or recording his work), but for how long remains uncertain. Trio Dances predates the dramatic turn of events in his life. It’s a dance suite for string trio some fourteen minutes long, inspired by Renaissance dances and sharing their titles, but in a modern and accessible style: Adrian has always been determined to write music that will be enjoyed by both players and audiences. The work was commissioned by the Presteigne Festival, and Perpetuo gave the premiere there in 2021.

Robert Schumann (1810-1846): Piano Quartet in E flat op 47

Sostenuto assai – Allegro ma non troppo: Scherzo, Molto vivace – Trio I – Trio II: Andante cantabile: Finale, Vivace

Schumann’s piano quartet, undoubtedly one of the finest for that medium, dates from 1842, the composer’s “Year of Chamber Music” that also saw the composition of the Piano Quintet – interestingly, in the same key and finished just a few weeks earlier – and three string quartets. It’s fortuitous that the quartet features so soon, in the final concert of this series.

The opening movement begins in sombre mood but sows the seed from the lively and lyrical allegro, its strong chords derived from the opening violin melody and contrasted with quaver movement initially from the piano. The second subject features ascending quaver scales and falling crotchets. The opening sostenuto returns but rather than leading to a repeat announces the development section. The recapitulation and a third appearance of the sostenuto music leads to an extended coda that keeps the listener guessing. Will the conclusion be subdued or upbeat?

The scherzo, placed second, is in G minor. Interestingly there are none of the familiar repeat marks or da capos in such movements by many composers and even Schumann’s contemporaries. It opens with a hint of Mendelssohn being mercurial, with an unbroken chain of unison quavers from piano and cello: this moto perpetuo continues when the violin and viola join in and harmonies emerge. The first trio is more relaxed, with lyrical lines, but there are regular reminders of the quavers from the music that encloses it. After a reprise of the scherzo, Trio 2 has Schumann playing an aural trick on the listener. Chords heard as if on the down beat are actually played on the third beat and tied over the bar line. Schumann was a master of this sort of trickery. Once again, the quaver motion and melodic shape from the scherzo is integrated into the texture. To finish the movement Schumann has a Haydnesque joke up his sleeve as he throws in a few notes of Trio one before a throwaway ending.

The main melody of the slow movement, given to the cello, contains both falling and rising sevenths, the key, along with the rich harmonies, to its expressive power. The violin takes up the theme, with countermelodies for the other strings while the piano plays accompanist before taking the melodic lead – intriguingly playing slightly off the beat.  Change of key from B flat to G flat brings an almost religious feel to the music, although Schumann continues to play with rhapsodic rhythms that make it hard to tell where the first beat should fall. The repeat of the cello melody has an inspired accompaniment – a different piano accompaniment and running semiquavers first heard from the violin. The music of the coda is inspired and seems to be new, with an ending surely none could have predicted.

Indeed, those extraordinary bars are as much a transition as a conclusion, as they introduce the main themes of the lively finale: a movement that also quotes from all the preceding movements, Schumann again being an expert at this. Three chords introduce a scurry of semiquavers and what follows is a tour de force of energy, virtuosity, melodies and motifs adapted and combined to exhilarating effect; not least when Schumann makes you wonder where the first beat of music written entirely in 3/4 actually falls.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Piano Quartet no 1 in C minor op 15

Allegro molto moderato: Scherzo, Allegro vivo: Adagio: Allegro molto

Fauré began work on the quartet in 1876, but it was 1880 before it premiered to great acclaim, and as part of the reason he won the Prix de Rome. For several years the composer had courted Marianne, the daughter of singer and composer Pauline Viadot. In 1877 they finally became engaged, but she broke it off after four months, to Fauré’s great distress. While the quartet is positive despite its minor key, the slow movement may betray some of the composer’s turmoil. Like Schumann, Fauré was a fine pianist, and the writing and textures for all the instruments help to make it a most satisfying work.

The sonata form opening movement begins with a theme characterised by a dotted rhythm, played in unison by the strings against piano chords. The textures become very varied, with every instrument allowed to shine. The second subject begins in the relative major, E flat, a melody that starts off the beat and features a semiquaver pattern. In the development, Fauré’s late romantic harmony takes the music into some unexpected keys, with the themes skilfully transformed and combined. In the recapitulation, the second subject begins in C major, and the movement draws to a hushed conclusion in that key. 

It’s straight into E flat major for the scherzo, placed second, as in the Schumann quartet. Fauré, who eschewed overt virtuosity, allows himself some infectious sparkle that’s reminiscent of Saint-Saëns’s writing for piano. The movement begins with pizzicato string chords before the piano initiates a whirling, syncopated melody. This is cleverly manipulated to appear in both 6/8 and 2/4 time, to very playful effect. The trio asks for muted strings. There’s a hint of relaxation, with longer-breathed string melodies, but the interplay of triplets against duplet quavers continues. Such cross rhythms are much loved by Brahms, who may have been an influence, though Fauré’s musical language is very much his own.

The contrast with the adagio could not be greater, as the music moves back into sombre C minor, with sonorous piano chords and hesitant melodies that seem reluctant to grow. Maybe this is the rejected lover wrestling with his sorrow. A move to A flat major enables the melodies to blossom more fully, the strings singing over a discreet piano accompaniment. The piano is finally allowed to join in the melodies before providing rippling decorations to a return of the opening music. The closing bars are filled with an intense, if resigned, sadness.

This is dispelled as soon as the finale starts, despite the minor key. The main and assertive theme announced by the strings is formed from an ascending scale with dotted rhythms contrasting with the stream of triplets from the piano. The flow of the music is sometimes at odds with the 3/4 time signature and Fauré even inserts a few 4/4 bars to adjust. A new theme is announced, again by the strings, against sustained piano chords. Fauré finds highly inventive ways of combining the contrasting ideas, the fluid harmonies and sometimes insistent rising dotted rhythm melody always moving the music on. The development reaches a discordant and insistent climax. The recapitulation is interrupted by a surprising piano cadenza – surprising partly for its lack of virtuosity even if the slowly unfolding arpeggio does take us almost to the very top of the piano’s range. But the music picks itself up: as in the first movement there’s a change of key to C major, but here, via much development and exploration of many keys, the conclusion is as upbeat as the first movement’s had been hushed.