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Piano Quintet in F major, Op 12

'Harty: String Quartets & Piano Quintet' (CDA67927)
Harty: String Quartets & Piano Quintet
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Movement 1: Allegro
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Movement 2: Vivace
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Movement 3: Lento
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Movement 4: Allegro con brio
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Piano Quintet in F major, Op 12
In 1904 Harty embarked on the composition of another large-scale chamber work, the Piano Quintet in F major, Op 12, which he entered for a prize advertised by the immensely wealthy Ada Lewis-Hill, a well-known philanthropist and patron of the arts. Lewis-Hill was known for her love music. She endowed numerous instrumental prizes at the Royal Academy of Music, owned several valuable pianos and stringed instruments, among them numerous Stradivari. As Arthur Benjamin recollected, she ‘was a London woman of fashion and wealth … who was the queen of a kind of court, with musicians attached. Zillah was one of her maids-of-honour’, others being the Hungarian violinist Tivadar Nachéz and W H Squire, the cellist. In fact Nachéz and Squire formed part of a regular quintet ensemble which included the violist Alfred Hobday and the pianist Benno Schönberger who would often provide music for the benevolent patroness at her evening soirées. A prize for a piano quintet, which offered the princely sum of fifty guineas to its winner, therefore essentially paid tribute to the loyal players of the quintet which had for many years entertained Mrs Lewis-Hill (until her death in 1906). Schönberger, Mackenzie and Cowen were the adjudicators, and from a pool of almost forty compositions Harty’s Quintet was announced the winner in January 1905. After a private hearing at Mrs Lewis-Hill’s home, the Quintet was given its first public performance soon afterwards for the ‘Concert Club’ at the Bechstein Hall on 29 January 1905, with Enrique Fernández Arbós (the Club’s musical director), T F Morris, Alfred Hobday and Purcell Jones, Harty at the piano, although the surviving programme suggests that only the first and second movements were actually given. Possibly because the composer chose to revise it, the work was not performed again until 7 December 1906, when it formed part of a concert of British music given by the Concert-Goers’ Club at the Langham Hotel. This, it seems, was probably its only complete hearing in public.

Harty’s Quintet is a bold, big-boned, passionate work of symphonic proportions and stands happily beside those large-scale Romantic utterances of Schumann, Brahms, Dvorák, César Franck, Fauré, Stanford and (later) Elgar in the same genre. This is music on a grand scale, full of melodic invention, where the idiom of piano and string quartet, susceptible to hybrid treatment, is dexterously manipulated polyphonically and antiphonally. With his established reputation as a pianist, Harty gave full prominence to the piano so that at times it competes with the strings like a concerto soloist.

Harty’s concept of the first movement is indeed largely orchestral. A rhythmically dynamic idea, presented in unison by the strings, gives way to a spacious composite theme shared among the instruments and surrounded by elaborate filigree. In a manner akin to Schubert, this extended paragraph closes in F and yields to an equally generous second subject, a pentatonic, folk-inspired melody in the subdominant, by now a common choice in the tonal organization of Harty’s sonata schemes. This extended section also closes unequivocally in B flat, but not before Harty has subjected the self-developing theme to a colourful, not to say dramatic series of modulations which passes through the Neapolitan B major, and its dominant F sharp. The recovery from D flat major, established at the development’s climax, is impressively executed, and the restatement of the second subject, appropriately in D flat, is imaginatively handled as Harty uses the return to F, in turbulent mood, as a fresh means of thematic reworking. The restoration of the tonic is marked by triumphal piano fanfares, displaced from their normal position in the recapitulation, a strident manner later subdued by the tranquil interjections of the string quartet which set the tone for the reflective coda (in which the viola plays a conspicuous role on its lowest, most sonorous string).

For the principal theme of his scherzo (assigned yet again to the viola), Harty resorted once more to a synthetic pentatonicism to create an ‘Irish’ theme, though this time the character of his material has a striking affinity with the arrangements of popular folk melodies by Percy Grainger. This is felt not only in the panache of the instrumentation—which is remarkably rich and vibrant, not least in the use of pizzicato—but also in the use of vigorous diatonic harmony, quirky modulations and countermelodies for which Grainger was renowned (in works such as Shepherd’s Hey, Handel in the Strand and the Irish reel Molly on the Shore). Harty’s structure, a beautifully crafted sonata, is also highly adroit, much skill being invested in the entertaining dialogue between piano and quartet in the development and in the playful and unexpected tonal divergencies.

If an Irish flavour is evident in the scherzo, then it is palpable in the expressive heart of the work, the slow movement in A minor. Though no genuine Irish tune is quoted, Harty’s material throughout the movement is infused with a persistent flattened seventh (of the relative major, C)—a feature of Irish folk music—which pervades both the melody and the harmony. Harty had already demonstrated a fondness for elaborate melodic decoration in his ‘Irish’ Symphony, a work which won the Feis symphony prize in 1904, but here it is even more abundantly apparent in the use of mordents, rapid scales and modal inflection. Morever, in this context, Harty makes fertile use of the ‘double tonic’ phenomenon as the lengthy thematic material switches tantalizingly back and forth between A minor and C major. Concluding in C major, the first subject utilizes the flattened seventh enharmonically (the B flat being written as A sharp) enabling, through an augmented sixth, a deft modulation to E major for the second subject. This second subject, even more so than the first, is extensively self-developing, in the manner of Tchaikovsky’s sweeping thematic paragraphs. Introduced by the viola, it is initially presented against a background of countermelody at which Harty excelled, but at its grand, extrovert reprise—the use of a heroic 6–4 chord, the scoring for strings in multiple octaves, and the intensity of the triplet accompaniment—it is even more reminiscent of the Russian.

In the last movement of the Quintet, Harty’s predilection for Russian music is confirmed in the lively second subject (which he must have unconsciously gleaned from Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto) and in the highly unconventional episode in B flat minor that forms the centrepiece of the development; both ideas give the finale a burlesque character that is even more accentuated in the impetuous coda. This propensity for the exotic, as well as for vibrant instrumental colour, would feature time and again in Harty’s later work, and would also affirm his fascination for other late nineteenth-century Russians, such as Musorgsky, Lyapunov, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, who featured in his programmes as a conductor.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2012

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Details for CDA67927 disc 1 track 4
Allegro con brio
Recording date
25 June 2011
Recording venue
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Jeremy Hayes
Recording engineer
Ben Connellan
Hyperion usage
  1. Harty: String Quartets & Piano Quintet (CDA67927)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: May 2012
    2CDs for the price of 1
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