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Dvořák Antonin – Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81 (1887)

In Dvořák’s oeuvre, Quintet in A major marks yet another return to Czech folk music inspirations, a music known to him since his childhood, spent on playing in Master Liehmann’s band in the town of Zlonice. Yet Dvořák has now gone beyond the phase of Slavonic Dances, written solely due to the pressure of Simrock, the publisher from Berlin (“thank you, Fritz!”). Dvořák has already produced such masterpieces as Stabat Mater and Symphony No. 7, he enjoys his international fame and he now writes whatever he thinks fit. He now looks upon folk music as a mature artist who cares for the development of his craft. This will finally lead to Piano Trio op. 90 nicknamed “Dumky,” a work like no other, where the way of treating the folk material is closest to Bartók rather than to any composer of the 19th century. Yet it is already while working on his Quintet that the composer understood that classical forms were slowly becoming of no use for him.
• Movement One – Allegro ma non tanto – is nothing but a corroboration of this fact. It contains two great thematic groups; of these, the first open with a melody of such beauty that many a performer falls in its trap of emotional excess. The tune appears twice, first in cello, then in violin, interrupted in both cases by contrasting episodes in minor mode; the second of these is a remarkably vivid dance. The second group of themes revolve around an idea of a stylized polka, yet one ballad-like and narrative rather than a dance. In the development, all these strands clash in extraordinary configurations among ever-changing harmony and texture, and splendid effects of tone obscure the formal dividing lines, invading also the recapitulation and the coda. One is hard put to decide what to admire more: the unfettered ingenuity or the absolute freedom in choosing technical means.
• Movement Two – Andante con moto – is a dumka (not every slow movement in Dvořák is one!). Its opening piano motif has been taken from one of Dvořák’s own songs, but it is almost identical with the “sphinx” that ushers in the march in the second movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major; in fact, Dvořák’s Andante shares the same rondo form. The dumka theme, full of limitless sorrow, has almost archaic features, a result of its “modalizing” scale and the use of a major sixth in a minor key. The climate brightens with a new, broad-flowing melody and its even prettier if more modest minor version, accompanied by pizzicatos. The central episode is a tempestuous dance much akin to the one in the first part yet even more fiery and interrupted with a sudden return of the dumka theme. The form closes symmetrically: already-heard melodies come back and the finale is closed with the dumka and a reminiscence of the initial motif, which acquires here a clearly ballad-like character.
• Scherzo (Furiant). Molto vivace – is a very graceful and spectacular stylization of the wild Czech dance, somewhat “civilized” this time to resemble a very rapid waltz. Piano leads the way, its texture, as always in Dvořák, not too comfortable for the pianist. In the calm trio, the twirling motif of the scherzo plays the part of a ritornello. Every Slavic ear will find familiar tones both here and in the scherzo’s other theme.
• Finale. Allegro is maintained in the rhythm of a polka, joyful and tempestuous in the main theme and reflexive in its subsidiary. A more serious tone also resounds in the epilogue. It pivots around the development, full of motion and natural virtuosity. Towards the end, the audience are struck by a musing moment; in a slower tempo, the polka theme sounds like a lyrical memory, only to augment soon in elevated yet joyful closure.
Quintet op. 81 had its premiere in Prague on 6 January 1888.
Maciej Negrey