Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Theme (Andantino) and Variations
Movement 3: Finale: Allegretto scherzando
Dvorák’s music of this period is suffused with a highly personal and apparently spontaneous melodic freshness that had emerged only intermittently in his earlier works where Wagner’s influence had at times obscured the Czech composer’s natural lyricism. The wonderfully unfettered melodic invention, markedly Slavonic in flavour, of the fifth symphony and the string Serenade is shared by the Piano Quartet in D major, many of whose themes have the haunting simplicity of folk song. Yet the music also reveals the growing subtlety of Dvorák’s imagination. In the initial Allegro moderato, for example, the relaxed, syncopated opening theme almost immediately dips into B major, a magical key shift characteristic of Schubert; this is not only a beautiful effect in itself but also presages the importance of B major in the movement’s overall tonal scheme. Equally subtle is the way the second theme draws on two separate fragments heard earlier, transforming them into phrases of beguiling lyricism. Characteristically, Dvorák dwells at length on this idea, enhancing it with expressive counter-melodies. In the coda a splendid climax is forged from the grandioso combination of the two main themes.
The Andantino is a set of variations on a grave melody in B minor, the choice of key surely influenced by the prominence of B major in the first movement. The five variations display an imaginative range of textures, from the sparseness of the first, through the gossamer delicacy of the third, in which the theme is inverted, to the full, rich colouring of the fourth, a free lyrical flowering that moves into the distant key of E flat. Dvorák draws an unexpected intensity from his theme in the coda, with its poignant chromatic harmonies and anguished final climax.
Contrary to Dvorák’s usual practice in his chamber works there is no independent scherzo. Instead he ingeniously combines features of both scherzo and finale into a single movement. The scherzo element is represented by the initial waltz theme and a subsequent section in quicker tempo whose biting cross-rhythms evoke the furiant, a Czech dance that features frequently in Dvorák’s later music. These two sections alternate with an allegro agitato in common time whose smooth cantabile lines, distinctly Mendelssohnian in feeling, rather belie Dvorák’s tempo marking. The coda’s transformation of this expansive lyricism into a short-breathed jig has an almost comical incongruity.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 1988