Movement 1: Moderato molto tranquillo
Movement 2: Sur un rythme de Zortzico
Movement 3: Lent – Allegro vivo ed agitato
In general, the twin influences of Massenet and Franck combine happily in Pierné’s music, the grace and melodic ease of the former being given substance by the contrapuntal tendencies of the latter. But the opening of this Quintet owes nothing to either of them. Instead, an insistently rotating four-note ostinato looks forward to the 1920s when such ostinatos became all the rage, not least under the influence of Stravinsky. Over this repeated figure floats a curious iambic rhythm, imparting if anything a sense of loss or nostalgia, as in Debussy’s Prélude Des pas sur la neige. Certainly this opening is nothing like the ‘solid’ start one expects from a forty-minute chamber work. But suddenly, impelled by Franckian piano chords, the music takes wing in a climax on octave strings, before receding again. The central theme of the movement is built more on rhythm than anything, with a triplet followed by dotted notes. For much of the time all five instruments are playing, until the four-note ostinato returns, and then the iambic tag, as the music finally sinks to rest.
Pierné had already experimented in 1910 with the Basque dance the ‘zortzico’ in his incidental music to Pierre Loti’s play Ramuntcho about Basque smugglers (Pierné’s conducting of the overture, available on YouTube, gives some idea of his tight rhythmic control). The dance has five beats in a bar, involving dotted rhythms (tum-tum-ti-tum-ti), and Ravel had used a version of it, with three beats added on the end, in the first movement of his Piano Trio of 1915. Pierné begins by alternating the 5/8 of the zortzico with standard 4/8 bars, as though breaking us in gently. But the zortzico tune, when it does come, is a delightful exercise in the popular vein—maybe even an original Basque tune, though no one has identified it as yet. Mostly the movement consists of variations on this tune in different keys and with different harmonies, but a secondary idea does emerge in the shape of a rising scale, complementing the falling pattern of the zortzico. Finally Pierné combines the two in the unusual metre of 20/8, before the music once more sinks to rest, in a long haze of D flat major.
In the slow introduction to the finale, Pierné tips his hat respectfully to Franck by revisiting tunes and rhythms from the previous two movements, starting with that of the zortzico. With increasing contrapuntal complexity comes an increase in speed, until the dam breaks—or if you prefer, the clouds disperse and a sunny E major tune emerges, Allegro vivo ed agitato. Franckian modulations carry all before them, culminating in a new theme (though again based on dotted rhythms) accompanied by trumpet-like chords on the piano. From here, all is development, interrupted by a couple of relatively peaceful oases. Dotted rhyhms continue to predominate, though the height of complexity is reached when the zortzico’s 5/8 is combined with both a 4/8 and a 3/8. The race to the end is exhilarating and triumphant.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2014