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Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op 87

'Dvořák: Piano Quartets' (CDA66287)
Dvořák: Piano Quartets
Buy by post £10.50 CDA66287 
Movement 1: Allegro con fuoco
Track 4 on CDA66287 [8'40]
Movement 2: Lento
Track 5 on CDA66287 [10'24]
Movement 3: Allegro moderato grazioso
Track 6 on CDA66287 [7'26]
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro ma non troppo
Track 7 on CDA66287 [9'30]

Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op 87
By the time Dvorák composed his Piano Quartet in E flat major he was an international celebrity, feted by the German and English musical establishments. The Berlin publisher, Simrock, who had made a fortune out of the first set of Slavonic Dances, had originally asked Dvorák for a new piano quartet in 1885, prompted, perhaps, by the success of Brahms’s work for the same instrumental combination. But it was not until four years later, after completing his opera The Jacobin, that Dvorák finally found the time to embark on the quartet. It was composed during July and August 1889, just before the eighth symphony, and the inspiration seems to have flowed easily: ‘The melodies just surged upon me’, he wrote to his friend Alois Göbl. Like the D major quartet it was premiered at a concert funded by the Prague Artistic Circle, on 23 November 1890.

The Piano Quartet in E flat is a more complex and demanding work than the D major, its design more closely wrought, its scoring more original and inventive. Though the string-writing in the earlier work is masterly (Dvorák was an accomplished violinist and violist), the piano has a tendency to resort to stock figurations. But by 1889 Dvorák was a vastly more experienced composer, and his writing for the keyboard in the E flat quartet is far more assured, with imaginative exploitation of both its percussiveness and its capacity for rich, massive sonorities. A particular feature of the string-writing is the prominence allotted to Dvorák’s own preferred instrument, the viola, especially in the fervent second subjects of the outer movements.

The arresting opening of the Allegro con fuoco immediately elicits a skittish reply from the piano in a foreign key, B flat minor, suggesting from the outset both the movement’s rapid shifts of mood and its wide tonal scope. Dvorák draws an astonishing range of meaning from this opening paragraph, notably in its myriad rhythmic transformations in the development and its spectral appearance on tremolando violin and viola in the coda. The key structure of this Allegro is particularly subtle and cogent: the piano’s initial flirtation with B flat minor, for instance, has a weighty consequence when the recapitulation introduces the opening unison motif powerfully in that key, not in the expected E flat major; and the dissonant B natural which lends that opening motif such a distinctive flavour is the first hint of the importance of B major and minor both in the first movement (as, for example, in the B major recapitulation of the second subject) and in the work as a whole.

For the Lento Dvorák moves into the key of G flat major, where the strings acquire a slightly veiled, dusky sonority. Formally the movement is as simple as the Allegro con fuoco was complex: five distinct melodies, of which the third and last are closely related, unfold at length and are then recapitulated, with altered scoring, in their original order. But expressively the music ranges wide, from the tranquil depth of the opening exchange between cello and piano to the powerfully scored fourth theme, whose passionate turbulence recalls the central section of the Adagio in Schubert’s String Quintet.

In spirit the captivating third movement, with its deliciously airy textures, lies somewhere between a Ländler and a waltz. There is a whiff of gypsy melancholy about the second theme, in G minor, curling dolefully within a narrow compass; and, as Dvorák’s biographer John Clapham has pointed out, the third appearance of the main theme, in the piano’s highest register, evokes the cimbalom, an instrument characteristic of rustic Czech bands. In the central section, with its deft canonic writing, the whispering B major opening contrasts startlingly with the fortissimo continuation in B minor, where cross-rhythms lend added pungency to the music.

There is once more a hint of the gypsy spirit at the start of the finale which, unusually in a major-key work, begins in E flat minor. Dvorák is typically lavish with his themes in the second group, which also includes a telling transformation of the opening theme, sounded dolce by cello and violin in imitation against an expressive viola counterpoint; while the soaring B major theme intoned by the viola in its haunting upper register is one of the composer’s loveliest inspirations. The exciting, tautly argued development concentrates almost exclusively on the opening idea, intensifying in turn its brusqueness and its latent lyricism.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 1988

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