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Program Notes: Doric String Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin

Jean Sibelius
Quartet in D minor  Op. 56  Voces Intimae

Sibelius’ Quartet in D minor was completed in 1909 and has five movements, symmetrically arranged in an arch form around the lyrical third-movement Adagio, with scherzos on either side separating it from the opening movement and finale.

The name Voces Intimae derives from a Latin inscription (meaning “intimate voices”) written in the composer’s hand above three mysterious repeated chords in the manuscript of the lyrical slow movement. And indeed, the whole quartet seems like one long conversation between inner voices, given how much motivic material the movements share between them.

The work opens with a short duet between violin and cello that affirms the work’s allegiance to the simple D minor scale. When all four instruments join together they introduce at the top of their first phrase an important musical motive: a single step up, followed by a downward leap of a 4th. This motive will dominate the development section in the middle of the movement and is emphatically proclaimed in its closing bars. Another melodic pattern repeated throughout the entire quartet comes in the movement’s second theme, a short skip up and down the scale with a dotted rhythm.

Sibelius’ slivery coolness of affect in this movement results from his constant use of running scale passages, often in all four voices simultaneously. His ideas are mostly presented linearly, in contrapuntal lines that often move together in the same note values, rather than in the standard texture of foreground melody with supporting background harmony. Block chords in this movement are reserved for special moments of emphasis that separate phrases or formal sections.

The brief second movement follows without a break and its tone is that of a Mendelssohnian scherzo that transforms the principal motives from the preceding movement into a feathery moto perpetuo of pulsing string tremolo, either scurrying along in unison like the string lines that open the famous finale of his Fifth Symphony, or richocheting acrobatically through sonic space.

The emotional heart of this quartet arrives in its third movement Adagio, structured around the alternation of two themes in contrasting tone colours—one major, the other minor. It is during the first appearance of the minor-mode theme that we hear the three mysterious chords that have given this quartet its nickname. Abandoning the contrapuntal ‘coolness’ of previous movements, Sibelius allows the first violin to pour its heart out in a series of tender melodic lines pleading for resolution, their sense of yearning reinforced by sigh motives and sobbing syncopations.

If the first scherzo in this quartet owes much to Mendelssohn, the second, in the fourth movement, is more indebted to Brahms in its seriousness of tone, Spartan texture and rhythmic heft. The heavy-footed plodding of its simple folk-like theme is occasionally relieved by mysterious strands of minuet-like melody that stand out against the murmuring whispers of running lines in the inner voices.

The concluding rondo finale begins with considerable swagger as punchy phrases, rocking back and forth with off-beat accents, echo through the texture. A new theme of small range is then announced by the viola over a bouncing-bow accompaniment and put up for discussion between all instruments. As the alternation between opening refrain and intervening episodes proceeds, a moto perpetuo dynamic takes over, turning the last half of the movement into an accelerando of steadily increasing momentum. Small fragments of melody pop up from time to time to plead their case against the onslaught of 16th-note patter, but to no avail. This movement drives relentlessly to its conclusion with an energy that even Rossini would envy.

 

Antonín Dvořák
Piano Quintet in A major  Op. 81

Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonín Dvořák’s ethnically flavoured but artfully crafted music. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the language of music was rapidly changing, Dvořák offered a range of aesthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era: formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality, devoid of the chromatic ambiguities and slip-sliding harmonic drift that made Wagner’s music so disorienting for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s love of the exotic with his soulful melodies tinged with the tang and bite of village life, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies. And performers loved him, too, for his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings that made every piece ‘speak’ well in the concert hall.

All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are to be found in his Piano Quintet in A major, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which along with Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet, stands at the summit of what 5 instruments, 10 hands and 50 fingers can accomplish under the creative direction of a master composer.

The work opens in lyrical splendour with a solo cello melody singing forth under the gentle cover of a raindrop accompaniment in the piano. Beginning in a sunny A major, it soon dips into the minor mode before yielding to a restless, more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This urge to develop themes straight out of the gate is a particularly Brahmsian touch (the F Minor Quintet begins with such contrasts) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody are presented before a second theme, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola. This second theme is then folded into yet another utterly scrumptious blend of piano and string sonority. Dvořák’s inventiveness is limitless, his textures like cookie dough for the ears.

The development section, unlike the exposition, eschews sectional contrast to pursue one long continuous arc of harmonic argument that unfolds with a sense of inevitability that impels it into a glorious recapitulation of the opening theme, led by the piano. The movement is crowned by an extended coda with its own propulsive energy that drives headlong to its conclusion.

In place of a slow movement, Dvořák gives us a ‘thoughtful’ one. The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought,’ and the pensive, lonely little opening theme of this movement lives up to the title. This opening also shows once again the depth of Dvořák’s textural inventiveness as its flickering tune, appearing first high up in the piano register, is soon matched with a countermelody far below in the viola. An alternation between slow and fast-moving sections is frequently found in the dumka and this movement features a rondo-like alternation of melancholy and upbeat passages in a formally symmetrical A-B-A-C-A-B-A pattern, with the friskiest section (C) arriving right in the middle. The little opening theme keeps returning, like a nostalgic thought drawn out of memory. The fragile poignancy of the magical final bars radiates the same sense of pathos found at the end of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488, also in F♯ minor.

In the place normally occupied by a third-movement scherzo, Dvořák offers a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance that often follows the dumka, erasing all morose thoughts the former movement might have inspired. Along with some eminently toe-tapping rhythms, Dvořák’s furiant offers a healthy display of musical exuberance with plenty of high-jinx and pianistic sparkle in the high register that often sounds like it’s going to run right off the end of the keyboard. The middle section acts as a little island of serenity amid all the frantic frolicking.

Dvořák’s last movement is an uplifting and riotously buoyant sonata rondo, with a spiffy opening refrain theme and a full-on fugato in the middle section. Themes glint and twinkle in between the major and minor modes, and the piano provides a level of keyboard chatter to rival the last movement of a Mendelssohn piano concerto. A slow chorale-like section appears at the end to let everyone catch their breath, but its real function is to act as a springboard for the final exhilarating charge to the finish.

Given its demonstrated mood-brightening effect on concert audiences, this movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a replacement for prescription antidepressants.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

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