Movement 1: Allegro con moto
Movement 2: Larghetto
Movement 3: Scherzo
Movement 4: Allegro molto – Vivace – Tempo I
Coleridge-Taylor freely acknowledged his favourite composer to be Dvorák, who was in turn a devotee of Schubert, whose inexhaustible spontaneity Coleridge-Taylor almost matched. The influence of both these composers is apparent the Quintet; more impressively, individual characteristics of Coleridge-Taylor’s mature style are already apparent: attractive and original melodies, strong rhythms and irregular phrase-lengths, and an ear sensitive to variety in tone-colour and dynamics are all in evidence, as are a gift for piquant harmony and bold key-changes allied to a sure grasp of structure. That the Piano Quintet was composed by an eighteen-year-old is remarkable. Understandably, the critic of the Croydon Advertiser used the word ‘astonishing’ in his review of the 1893 concert.
The first movement has an assertive principal subject played by all the strings in octaves with an almost orchestral sonority; the second subject, in the relative major key of B flat, is introduced by the piano and while its shape and apparent simplicity might be Schubertian (as is its momentary diversion to C flat major), it represents an early flowering of Coleridge-Taylor’s own exceptional melodic talent.
The Larghetto, in E flat major, begins serenely with a reflective cello solo gently woven around by languid piano tracery; with the entry of the other strings the tonality hovers beguilingly between the home key of E flat major, G major, and E major. A forceful, rhetorical episode emerges, the strings in octaves declaiming powerful incantations over widely leaping sforzando chords in the piano. The opening mood of tranquillity is restored in the coda and extended by means of a long tonic pedal supporting delicate piano arabesques and sustained string chords.
The first half of the Scherzo has a driving energy which all but overspills in the second half: chains of syncopations, alarming (but perfectly controlled) tonal swerves, contrapuntal forays which are interrupted before they have a chance to make progress, and juxtapositions of extreme dynamics leave one grateful for the respite offered by the trio.
The mood of the finale is initially much darker than those of the earlier movements: textures are more spare and lines more angular. The second subject has a positively sinister aspect: its dominant minor mode, its instrumentation (viola leading, thick chords in the lower registers of the piano, seemingly disembodied violin scales)—even the harmony has an eerie, unsettling quality. After the exposition repeat, perhaps concerned that the atmosphere has become too oppressive, the composer suddenly effects a transformation to something altogether sunnier: instead of a development section he gives us a perky fugato setting off in D major, the subject of which is a variant of the trio melody from the third movement—an early example of his gift for clever thematic metamorphosis.
The recapitulation is telescoped, the composer dispensing with that baleful second subject until the coda, where it is briefly developed as the basis of an exciting ‘alla breve’ final run-in which resolves triumphantly in the major mode.
from notes by Lionel Harrison © 2007