Some hundred years separate Mozart’s String Quartet no. 7 from this mind-blowing piece. In 1887 Antonin Dvorak composed his Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major (Op. 81/B. 155), and I must tell you, the recording by the Pavel Haas Quartet and Boris Giltburg at the piano is quite a revelation. When I heard it for the first time I got really excited, and I still am whenever I listen to it. Mozart, with all due respect, wrote a nice little piece, but this quintet has emotional depth, stirring rhythms, it is incredibly dynamic and a real force multiplier. This should boost you like a Falcon Heavy rocket into spring’s orbit.
Beginning with a false start
Dvorak had a difficult start with this piece. Initially he intended to rewrite an earlier piano quintet in A major (Op. 5). He had destroyed the manuscript 15 years earlier, then changed his mind, retrieved a copy and set out to make revisions. The biographer Guy Erismann writes that at the beginning of 1887, Dvorak enjoyed a quiet time, surrounded by friends, his mind was at rest and he was willing to go back to distant souvenirs. However, and I am sure you have experienced this too, sometimes it is better to start from scratch than to try to improve something existent.
After several fruitless attempts Dvorak decided to write a completely new quintet. And I am glad he did! The Piano Quartet No. 2 is written in four movements, and Dvorak’s musical language suggests its distant origin in the works of Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert. But Dvorak had before long given his music a very individual imprint. He fused the traditional form with cultural elements from his home country – what would become Czechoslovakia in 1918 – and forges a musical style of its own.
Dumka and Furiant
The first movement opens with a lyrical cello theme, accompanied by the piano. The viola introduces a second, equally lyrical theme, but the movement picks up speed, slows down again, starts anew, all this with several dramatic highlights. The second movement refers to the Dumka, a ballad typical for Slavic countries, and often used by Dvorak. The composer sketched a melancholic theme for the piano and the viola, broken up by fast interludes. Both movements are rather long (15 minutes) in comparison to the next two, which last 4 and 8 minutes respectively.
The third movement is marked Furiant. The term refers to a fast Bohemian folk dance. The cello and the viola alternatively play pizzicati* accompanying the main theme of the violin. The theme is taken up later, this time by the violin and the piano alternatively with an aggressive race to the finish line. The final movement is light-hearted with a fugue in the development section and a chorale-like section towards the end and again a rush to the finish line.
“Like the changing sky in spring”
Erismann quotes in his biography Otokar Sourek who has extensively researched Dvorak’s life and works: “He was apparently a very reserved man, living in his interior world, the universe of sounds, removed from daily business. He moved in the paradise of his creative imagination, sometimes struck by dark ideas or animated by joy. An infinite number of vibrations exploded in his mind, like the changing sky in spring.” There is little to add; the quintet is a true emanation of this mindset. Enjoy the quintet! Enjoy spring!
© Charles Thibo