Movement 1: Allegro ma non troppo
Movement 2: Andante sostenuto
Movement 3: Allegro con brio
These were years of considerable poverty for Dvorák and he eked out a living by playing the viola in the Czech theatre in Prague and teaching music. The musical characteristics of this early phase were, to say the least, pioneering, and later in the 1860s he began writing some highly experimental string quartets climaxing in the single-movement E minor quartet (B19) completed around 1870. This extraordinary work pushes tonal and formal experiment to limits unmatched by European composers until the mid-1890s. While bold in intention, there is no doubt that these works would not have found a ready public in the Prague of the early 1870s. The search for a sympathetic audience, as Dvorák began to make his way more publicly as a composer, clearly prompted a need to mould output to expectation.
The first signs that Dvorák was moderating his style are to be found in a series of song-settings from 1871 and 1872. Apart from The Heirs of the White Mountain and the comic opera The King and the Charcoal Burner of 1871, most of Dvorák’s composing efforts were geared to smaller-scale works suitable for the salons of Prague, in particular that of Ludevit Procházka, an enthusiastic amateur pianist who took part in the performance of at least one movement from the composer’s first two piano trios (both now lost). From the same vintage was his Piano Quintet No 1 in A major, composed in the late summer of 1872. This work might also have been lost to posterity since it seems Dvorák tore up and burnt his own manuscript of the quintet. However, Procházka had taken the precaution of having a copy made and so the work survived the composer’s overly impetuous judgement of it.
The quintet shows something of the discursiveness of the early string quartets, a point noted by a critic at the premiere, but there is no doubting the confidence with which Dvorák handles the combination of piano and strings (doubly impressive since he did not possess a piano at this time), which in many places anticipates the instrumentation in the more famous second piano quintet. Unsurprisingly, at this early stage in his career, there are influences to be perceived: Liszt in the first theme, which supplies much of the developmental impetus for the movement, and perhaps Schubert in the second main melody. But overall there is a clarity to the musical argument which was much enhanced by revisions Dvorák made in 1887, including a cut of some 150 bars; if Dvorák’s later decision to leave out the second theme in the recapitulation means the end of the movement comes a touch abruptly, he nevertheless provides a suitably heroic peroration.
The intense and impressively sustained Andante sostenuto is based on a main melody of Beethovenian nobility. After a restless central section the movement comes to a magically tranquil close. In sharp contrast the finale begins in agitated fashion with a bold introduction which draws the tonality from the distant F major of the slow movement to A major, the main key of the whole quintet. There is something of the quality of a scherzo about the manner of writing, and while there is much detail for the ear to fasten onto in this wide-ranging movement, the cumulative effect of the whole does not compare with the later quintet or, indeed, the chamber works he was to write in the mid-1870s.
In one of his periodic reviews of earlier works, Dvorák’s mind returned to his first piano quintet and he asked Procházka for his copy of the piece. Notwithstanding making cuts in all three movements, Dvorák still did not feel able to offer it to Simrock, his Berlin publisher, for publication (in fact, the premiere of his revised version did not take place until 1922, eighteen years after Dvorvák’s death). But as was often the case with Dvorák, the contemplation of one work led to the composition of another in the same form. He appears to have wrestled with the earlier quintet for as much as five months before concluding that it was unviable. His frustrated efforts, however, seem to have unleashed new creative energies and the new quintet was completed in a little over six weeks, from the middle of August to the beginning of October 1887.
from notes by Jan Smaczny © 2010