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Piano Quintet in C minor, Op 42

'Hahn & Vierne: Piano Quintets' (CDA67258)
Hahn & Vierne: Piano Quintets
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Movement 1: Poco lento – Moderato
Movement 2: Larghetto sostenuto
Movement 3: Maestoso

Piano Quintet in C minor, Op 42
The Piano Quintet in C minor is cast in three immense movements. The restrained piano octaves of the opening (‘Poco lento’) uncoil an ominous sequential ‘sidewinder’ of a theme, its tonality studiedly obscure and its mood darkly impenetrable. The string homophony summoned in response bears a striking and immediate resemblance to the early mature style of Frank Bridge, one of the very few English composers at that time to display the pronounced influence of Fauré. The alternation of piano with strings contracts, launching the first movement ‘proper’ (Moderato), in which string exploration of the opening note-row against rippling piano figuration expands rapidly. There is little or no perceptible distinction between natural thematic extension and an actual transition, and the suddenness with which this process is cut short by an unlikely tonal sidestep makes the initial impact of the second subject (initially a cello solo over funereal piano chords) all the more arresting. Here the composer’s specified grief and tenderness make themselves felt in a haunting inspiration, the sorrowing sequential descent of which neatly mirrors the ascendant spiral of the more neurasthenic first subject. The pervasive influence of Franck and the precedent of his own essay in this medium make themselves apparent both in the melodic intervals and in the unobtrusively satisfying symmetry of the secondary idea, which clearly held deep significance for Vierne and is accordingly developed at once into an immense restatement. Both Franck and Fauré are evoked in unison (not octave) string doubling, a resource by which both had already achieved a distinctively Gallic plangency in their own moments of heightened drama.

A piano solo launches the development section, anticipating the start of Fauré’s late Second Piano Quintet with its nervous semiquaver pattern over the motto theme. The first theme is intensively explored in cellular fashion before a further, polyphonic string examination of new sequential possibilities in the second subject. An approaching climax is cut short before the attenuated menace of the work’s opening phrase returns, rising again from the depths. By now the piano is in more obvious melodic competition with the string complement, and the deliberate effect is of straining the medium almost beyond its inherent bounds. An immense climactic paragraph is again cut short by the second subject, articulated this time by the piano over triplet-based string figuration. This time rhapsodic extension leads to a dolce restatement, polyphonically elaborated to particularly poignant effect. The movement ends on a quiet chord of C major. This final restraint, like the torrential earlier emotion, suggests a parallel with the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies of Vierne’s senior contemporary, Albéric Magnard, where rugged, sometimes overpowering drama repeatedly finds its quietus in an almost apologetically understated conclusion: the underlying rawness of emotion is all the more unsettling for being dourly denied by a last-minute restoration of Magnard’s stiff upper lip. To those familiar only with Vierne’s organ music, the confessional quality of the Quintet’s passion may come as an immense surprise, and the sense of unfinished business is palpable here.

The second movement blunts the sharp edge of grief with its trance-like evocation of distant memories. The much-delayed piano entry over a bass pedal point, followed by muted string lamentations, suggests the actual momentum of Fauré’s chamber slow movements, while still evoking Frank Bridge to a point where one wonders whether Vierne could have encountered that composer’s imposing Piano Quintet of the preceding decade. Eventually the piano breaks out of this interior world to effect an abrupt dislocation. After nervously disjointed tremolandi and other fragmented effects the music settles again, but its long melodic line is subjected to further hostile commentary and interruption. This escalates (partly via inverted transformations of the work’s opening theme) until the monumental central climax, where the precedent of Franck’s Quintet is appropriated in music of intense anguish. A recapitulation of the opening section initially presents melodic lower strings against tolling piano chords and discreet arabesque lines from the violins. The piano’s regression to sparse octaves is both a textural recollection of the first movement’s opening and a return to the start of the second.

The prolonged introduction to the third and final movement opens with painful stabbing chords from the piano and a withdrawn string response which sinks immediately back into despairing lassitude. String tremolandi accompany a revisiting of the work’s opening theme, in characteristic Franckian, ‘cyclic’ fashion. The ensuing piano solo passage is yet again uncannily close to Frank Bridge, but this time the Bridge of the astringent Piano Sonata dating from 1922–5. That work, too, commemorates a Great War fatality (Bridge’s friend and fellow-composer, Ernest Farrar), and in doing so amounts to a passionate denunciation of all human conflict. It is moving to sense a degree of common musical speech springing up by apparent accident between these two men, both reserved and inwardly troubled in their different ways, as each struggled to sublimate ideological or personal anguish in the face of the world events which assailed them.

In due course Vierne’s finale gets fully under way with a striding theme in compound rhythm (drawn from the introduction) over a short-lived ‘drone’ pedal. The effect is momentarily that of the scherzo from Schubert’s great C major String Quintet inexplicably played in the equivalent minor key. After a grandly expansive opening paragraph the music recedes somewhat and assumes a troubled scherzando character whose contrapuntal possibilities are more implied than explored. Here the main theme emerges de-synchronized with the inexorable progress of the beat, thereby suggesting a parallel with the mischievously cunning final pages of Brahms’s F major String Quintet, Opus 88.

The first theme of Vierne’s finale recurs in the dominant, G minor, and later in A minor as well after powerfully rhythmic dialogue between all instruments. The frequent ambivalence of burlesque and nightmare qualities is resolved predictably enough as a central section subsides into ghostly stillness. A piano solo over a tremolando bass strongly—and perhaps deliberately—evokes Liszt’s two late pieces titled La Lugubre Gondola (inspired by the sighting of a water-borne funeral cortege in Venice). Muted string chords and tolling piano ‘bells’ intensify the funereal effect before cyclic reference to both the first movement’s main themes occurs before the music re-ignites in a driven recapitulation. Here the prevailing moto perpetuo rhythm recedes to form a background for mournful restatement of the first movement’s second subject (heard with its original unhurried momentum virtually intact against the newly flurrying accompaniment). This suggests another nod at Schubert, whose use of the same device in the finale of his great E flat major Piano Trio is one of that work’s most telling inspirations. Vierne rises to the occasion with several ingenious harmonic transformations.

Eventually the music accelerates towards a stormy coda which contrives to continue that process seemingly into and beyond the finish, thus leaving a deliberate sense of unresolved drama: of demons anything but laid to rest. And, alas, for this most tragic of composers such a conceit was to prove prophetic of one further blow, seemingly more terrible ultimately than all the others. Vierne’s brother René, his junior by eight years, had served as his amanuensis at several crucial stages in earlier life, and had accepted his lesser talents as a musician with affectionate admiration rather than envy, eventually prospering from his elder sibling’s instruction and much hard work to become an accomplished organist in his own right and the author of many effective and often virtuosic short works for the harmonium. On active service for his country at the age of forty, since the death of Jacques he had consoled his brother with his letters, which, however, had latterly begun to take on a fatalistic and implicitly premonitory tone as they recalled more and more scenes of childhood, as if the better thereby to fix himself in the memory of Louis.

from notes by Francis Pott © 2001

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