January 20 & 21, 2019

Dvořák’s Beloved Piano Quintet

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Artists

Anna Polonsky, piano
Jaime Laredo, violin
Bella Hristova, violin
Nokuthula Ngwenyama, viola
Sharon Robinson, cello
 

Program

Mozart

Beethoven

Dvořák

Duo for Violin & Viola

Serenade in D for String Trio, Op. 8

Quintet for Piano & Strings in A Major


This program brings together an extraordinary group of artists to perform Dvořák’s piano quintet, one of the most treasured works of the chamber music repertoire. This beloved quintet is balanced by works by Mozart & Beethoven to round out the program.

— It is with great regret that André Watts has had to cancel his Linton appearances this season due to a temporary hand injury. Linton Chamber Music is grateful to Anna Polonsky for graciously agreeing to perform the Dvořák Quintet on this revised program.

Program Notes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

Duo for Violin & Viola No. 1 in B-flat Major, K. 424

Hieronymus Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg, was one of Mozart’s least favorite patrons. According to the composer’s correspondence at the time, the Archbishop considered his court musicians as members of his household staff and expected them to serve at his whim. Increasingly frustrated with this relationship, Mozart eventually submitted his resignation in 1781 and was dismissed with, as Mozart put it, a “kick in the behind.” It is a great irony, therefore, that two years later Mozart composed a pair of duos for violin and viola (of which today’s selection is the first) for his former employer’s court, completely unbeknownst to the Archbishop himself.

In the summer of 1783, Mozart returned to Salzburg for the first time to introduce his new wife Constanze to his father and sister. During this visit he learned that his longtime friend and Archbishop Colloredo’s court music director Michael Haydn (younger brother of Joseph Haydn) had fallen ill and was unable to complete the Archbishop’s commission for a set of string duos. As a favor to his friend, Mozart stepped in and quickly composed the last two duos for Haydn to pass off as his own. The commission complete, the set was well-received by the Archbishop’s court with no indication that anyone noticed two of the six pieces were penned by a different composer.

Musically, the B-flat Major duo ably demonstrates Mozart’s mastery of both counterpoint and writing for violin and viola. The opening Allegro of K424 is preceded by a slow introduction based on a motif Mozart would later revisit in the slow movement of the G minor String Quintet (K516). The movement then proceeds through a variety of melodic ideas highlighted by some brilliant concerto-style passagework in the violin and a development whose climax is a spirited canonic episode, where viola and violin each take the lead in turn. The following Andante cantabile is a single extended violin melody set against a rich harmony that the viola, usually playing two notes at a time, is able to suggest. The outlines of the last movement, an ‘Andante’ with six variations, are by contrast absolutely clear, with a different character for each variation and a coda that transforms the theme into a lively German dance. The viola shares in the presentation of the initial theme and has a leading role in several of the variations.

 

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Serenade in D Major for String Trio, Op. 8

Beethoven composed his string trios early in his career. He completed five trios, including today’s Serenade, between 1794 and 1798. From there he composed the first of his monumental string quartets and never returned to the trio as a form. While many speculate that Beethoven used the trio as a practice exercise for his quartets, the composer himself denied this; rightly pointing out that the trio as a form presents its own unique challenges. The smaller ensemble and more limited range of voices place greater restraints on texture and require greater creativity on the part of the composer to develop a full ensemble sound and counterpoint. Despite these limitations, the young Beethoven here proves himself more than up to the challenge of composing a string trio that beautifully capitalizes on the unique instrumentation.

Light and tuneful, Beethoven’s Serenade echoes the serenades and divertimenti of Mozart and Haydn. Following Classical tradition, the Serenade is meant to serve as an evening’s light entertainment and Beethoven seems to use the order of his movements as an extra-musical reference to this tradition. The Serenade opens and closes with a march, suggesting the arrival and departure of a troop of musicians who have come to serenade us. In between, Beethoven alternates between slow and fast tempi in predominantly major keys, keeping the work bright and engaging. Humorously he interjects a brisk scherzo in the middle of the slow fourth movement, and he suggests a Polish mazurka in the next movement. He follows that with a theme and variations as the sixth movement, then closes the work with a reprise of the opening march.

Though by no means the career-defining monuments demonstrated by his quartets, Beethoven’s trios nevertheless reflect many of the traits that distinguish him. Here we have Beethoven the classicist composing in a style reminiscent of past masters yet still unable to resist the urge to infuse a traditional genre with creativity, humor, and wit. Ultimately the Serenade serves as a light and pleasant diversion that reminds us of the moments that make us love Beethoven to begin with.

 

Antonin Dvořák (1841 – 1904)

Quintet for Piano & Strings in A Major, Op. 81

Dvořák’s Op. 81 Quintet can be viewed as the composer literally attempting to rewrite his past. In the early 1870s, a young Dvořák composed his Op. 5 Quintet in A Major – a work with which he was never satisfied. By 1887 Dvořák was a fully matured composer at the peak of his skill. He had completed his seventh symphony, was on the precipice of his eighth, and had established his unique voice. It was in this year that Dvořák set about editing his Op. 5 to meet his now very exacting standards. Ultimately, the composer found himself again unable to improve the early work but was nevertheless undeterred. Instead he set about composing a new quintet in A Major and in just seven weeks completed his Op. 81 – a quintet held alongside those of Schumann and Brahms as one of the finest works ever composed for the ensemble.

The quintet represents a particularly successful fusion of Dvořák’s Czech nationalism and the Austro-German tradition. This contrast is evident in the structure of the work itself as Dvořák employs a traditional four movements but replaces the slow second movement with a decidedly non-traditional Dumka. Alternating slow and fast sections and contrasting moods play prominent roles not only in the Dumka, but also in the first movement. Although there are no specific folk-song quotations here, Dvořák’s original melodies often elicit a folk mood. The lovely opening cello melody soon turns toward the minor mode; this is only the beginning of many effortless changes back and forth between major and minor of which Dvořák was so fond.

Dvořák explained in the preface to his Dumky Trio, that the untranslatable word dumka was of Ukrainian origin and had its roots in melancholy poetry. More specifically, a dumka was a kind of lament that had to be followed by a dance or else its true nature could not be felt. His music shows this understanding to perfection in the alternation of contrasting slow and fast sections, a combination to be found in the folk music of his native Czechoslovakia. In this dumka, the F-sharp minor opening melody suggests a lament, but with the typical Slavic rapid mood change it soon gives way to a cheerful D major melody. The main contrast to the lament “refrain,” however, arrives with the outbreak of the vivace section whose theme Dvořák derived from the Dumka’s opening.

Subtitled furiant, the scherzo takes on the spirit of this lively Slavic folk dance but omits displaced accents in favor of more straightforward rhythms. The central section takes a calm, slightly wistful look at the opening material before the scherzo returns in its spirited guise. Dvořák’s sense of fun permeates the finale, in which he contrasts folk-like melodies with elegant contrapuntal devices in his development section. The slow chorale passages in the coda serve to emphasize the exuberance of the main theme, which happily rounds off the piece.

By Tyler Roe