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Piano Quintet in G minor, Op 34
1885; first published in 1931

'Zarębski: Piano Quintet; Żeleński: Piano Quartet' (CDA67905)
Zarębski: Piano Quintet; Żeleński: Piano Quartet
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Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Scherzo: Presto
Movement 4: Finale: Presto

Piano Quintet in G minor, Op 34
In 1885, when Zarebski composed his Piano Quintet in G minor, Op 34, he was famous more as a performer than as a composer. Since it was first published (in 1931, forty-six years after its composition), the Piano Quintet has been regarded within Poland as a masterpiece. It shows a remarkably fresh ear for symphonic thinking, motivic development and sheer melodic invention.

It is immediately striking that the piano is cast as primus inter pares rather than as a vehicle for virtuosity. Zarebski also understands, where other composers have sometimes struggled, how to balance the piano and four string instruments. More often than not, the piano plays a supporting role to the intense lyricism of the strings. The main theme of the first movement quickly takes wing in a manner that becomes characteristic of Zarebski’s intuitive thematic development, where the melody moves motivically beyond its initial idea. Another typical feature is his application of this free-flowing principle to larger sections. A subsidiary idea, playfully toying with the 4/4 time signature, also becomes lyrical and modulates to E flat major, not a standard key-relationship for a second subject.

The gently melancholic lilting of the second subject soon gives way to a gathering of expressive power, before an extended codetta leads to the central development. Here, Zarebski shows his tonal boldness by moving the main theme through a range of distant keys without ever settling. Even the reflective musing on the main theme by the cello seems keen to avoid confirming the key outright, so it is not surprising that when C sharp minor is finally affirmed it rapidly subsides onto the home key, a tritone away, for the abbreviated recapitulation. Within six bars, in a masterstroke of concision, Zarebski switches from the main theme to the second subject and the momentum rapidly develops towards the first of two climaxes. A brief return to the main theme leads to a headlong coda.

The metrical displacement that featured briefly in the first movement recurs at the start of the second. The downbeat is not initially where it sounds, and the tonality is ‘off key’ too, aiding the mysterious atmosphere of the muted string response to the piano’s bass rhythm. The theme, when it comes, is in B flat major, though its resonance and chromatic colouring give it an intensity that might rather be associated with a minor key. It is soon on the move tonally and develops into an expressive interplay among the string players. A second section, in a bright G major, opens with a rare solo spot for the piano, edging chromatically downwards in a way that Chopin might have recognized. The central section that follows demonstrates Zarebski’s concern with delicacy as much as lyricism, and this provides a telling foil for the increasingly impassioned recapitulation of the main theme. The movement ends with a surprise return of the enigmatic introduction (after, not before the recapitulation) and a final glimpse of the main theme.

A virtuoso touch is brought to the exuberant Scherzo, which sets off in C minor as an almost jokey galop in 6/8. A new idea, in 2/4, also contrasts in key: G flat major on its first appearance, G major on its second. What then follows is unexpected: a fugal treatment of this theme and a substantial espressivo section before a brief return of the two themes to conclude the movement. Once more Zarebski has ignored standard thematic/structural conventions. He does it again, to stunning effect, immediately after the third movement ends.

By starting the Finale with the main theme from the Scherzo, Zarebski also makes explicit what has been hinted at earlier: the motivic ties between movements. This cyclic integration, characteristic of the age and possibly learned from his teacher Liszt, is especially subtle in Zarebski’s hands. It is only as the Finale progresses that he makes an overt point of tying the work together in this way, and it seems totally natural, never self-conscious.

After this unusual introduction, the Finale settles into a folk-like theme in G major, its innocent gait soon developing into something more rumbustious. A gentler musing, with running semiquaver accompaniment on the piano, leads to another major recollection, of the work’s opening theme. From this point on, Zarebski meshes old and new, combining the lyrical and the exuberant with symphonic panache and crowning the coda with a majestic statement of the quintet’s first theme.

from notes by Adrian Thomas İ 2012

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Details for CDA67905 track 5
Recording date
6 December 2011
Recording venue
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Jeremy Hayes
Recording engineer
Ben Connellan
Hyperion usage
  1. Zarebski: Piano Quintet; Zelenski: Piano Quartet (CDA67905)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: December 2012
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