Movement 1: Allegro non troppo
Movement 2: Intermezzo (Allegretto)
Movement 3: Moderato – Tempo del primo pezzo
The work was written during the summer and early autumn of 1914, mainly in Berlin where it was first performed on 12 November by the Klinger Quartet with the composer at the piano. Its volatility and urgency reflected Dohnányi’s innate response to the rapidly enveloping turmoil of the period, though in no sense is the work other than wholly abstract in form; indeed, much of its harmonic language is remarkably progressive, and its unique coloration owes something to both the languorous exoticism of Debussy and the radicalism of Schoenberg. But Dohnányi wears modernism with discretion, and even a superficial comparison of his two piano quintets will highlight the depth and gravity, not to mention the greater economy and lucidity of Op 26 to immediate advantage.
The work opens in an atmosphere of unsettling mystery as the strings give out a foreboding low-register idea against a hushed piano accompaniment. The main first subject of this Allegro non troppo (which has echoes, surely, of Rachmaninov) is elastic and powerful, its inner tensions deliberately repressed, though made more public and palpable when developed fully after the viola’s triplet figure anticipates a new episode, in which the piano becomes the dominant and heroic protagonist. A new subsidiary idea of more lyrical and expansive character is debated in increasingly chromatic dialogue between piano and strings, and the development section itself is remarkable for its concentration, though the music has assumed stronger nationalistic identity than noted previously, except perhaps in the Finale of Op 1. The recapitulation, too, is abrupt and thoroughly impassioned.
Although the traditional Scherzo and slow movement have been replaced by an Intermezzo, the weighty issues explored in the opening movement remain unresolved until addressed afresh in the Finale, and so the middle movement does not provide the psychological foil to the movements it appears to bridge. Instead, the restless atmosphere of the opening Allegro imbues the nostalgic, unmistakably Viennese gait of the Intermezzo with unexpected reserve, even as the viola gives out the principal theme of the movement. There follows a free exploration of this, and several other motifs, juxtaposing sinuously reflective material with passages of more assertive character, though existing anxieties are never deeply concealed.
The Finale opens with a sombre, slowly evolving canon announced by the cello and gradually developed contrapuntally by the other string voices, striking an immediately tragic and regretful note. The piano appears with a solemn and valedictorily charged chorale, and these two elements provide the core material for the entire movement. Free development involves the speeding up of the canonic theme from the start of the movement, and the seething complexity of Dohnányi’s scoring now fully reveals the modernism of this episode to full effect; the influence of Schoenberg’s style is plainly evident. But the tragic and pessimistic aspect of the music gives way to a mood of expansive optimism in a coda of splendid affirmation, all doubt being banished during the cathartically triumphant final pages of the work.
from notes by Michael Jameson © 1996