Russian genius Sergei Prokofiev, 1891-9153, wrote two works for string quartet, the first of which was written in 1930. There are many unusual features to this three-movement work, one of which is that the movements are arranged fast-fast-slow in tempo, rather than the far more common fast-slow-fast. As with many of Prokofiev’s mature works, each of the movements has a unique form as well. The first movement, in three sections, is perhaps best seen as a modified sonata form that contains two “secondary themes”, and in which new material is introduced at the end of the development section. The second movement starts as a slow movement but quickly changes its mind and becomes a scherzo instead. This main body of the movement is a modified five-part rondo. The third movement, which is cyclical in that it quotes material from the two earlier movements, can be understood as a six-part rondo form. Prokofiev was so fond of this final movement that he arranged it for string orchestra and for solo piano.
Regardless of which movement is your favorite, you are bound to hear the distinctive melodies, surprising modulations, unusual counterpoint, and clever interplay of voices and textures for which Prokofiev is famous and which help to make him so well loved. As with many of the works we have performed over the years, we feel that this quartet deserves to be performed and heard more often. We hope you will think so, too.
As wonderful of a child prodigy as Mozart was, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), is the one composer who can claim to be more deserving of the title of ‘the world’s most amazing young composer.’ For example, in order for Mozart’s compositions as a teenager to be impressive one still must take his tender age into account, but not so with Mendelssohn! In his case, the fact that he wrote his octet at age 16 simply boggles the mind of each new generation that encounters this fact. It is not only considered by many to be the best work for this genre, but to be one of the greatest string chamber music masterpieces of any kind. Mendelssohn’s mastery of string writing is apparent throughout. Noteworthy as well is the freedom with which Mendelssohn combines the various members of the octet in imaginative and ever varied ways.
There are actually some similarities between this work and the Prokofiev quartet, including the fact that Mendelssohn himself arranged this piece for another instrumentation, namely piano duet. This work is also cyclical, with the last movement quoting earlier movements, and it contains considerable counterpoint, but the similarities end there.
The exuberant first movement is an expansive sonata form. Note how well Mendelssohn is able to construct beautiful contrasting melodies that are all integrated by the same motivic material. The calm, languorous melody that begins the second movement gradually becomes more anguished and troubled. The famous third movement scherzo was apparently inspired by an excerpt from Goethe’s Faust. The consummate fairy dance, it showcases many of the light and sparkling articulations that are unique to string instruments. The presto finale is a fugue in sonata form. Over the constantly running eighth notes Mendelssohn spins out slower-moving counter melodies, the foremost of which resembles a familiar passage from Handel’s Messiah.
This masterpiece is one of the few works that every string player dreams of playing at some point, and we are delighted to be performing the work with the wonderful musicians of the Rhapsodie Quartet.
Notes by Dr. Benjamin Whitcomb
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