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Piano Quintet


The Piano Quintet of 2001 is a continuous, abstract span, not sectional or scenic. It is full of striking imagery: tightly worked cascades in the high treble, interlocked textures coming undone, a moment of repose, but now all engaged in the one unfolding process. There is a strong invitation to understand that process in terms of sonata form, with an exposition that is even repeated, followed by development and recapitulation. Beneath this guise the music is in constant evolution (as is indeed very often the case in Beethoven or Schubert); it is also far from classical norms in its texture, much of it being composed in layers that, though they certainly act on one another, follow independent courses set by their own harmonic and metrical guidelines.

So it is at the start, a kind of non-fugue in which the first violin, the piano and the remaining string trio enter in turn with what is partly the same material—a scalewise rise of three chords and then a descent through a different scale in quicker notes—and partly not, for each new entry has to adapt to a constantly altering environment, which itself seems to come out of the slightly wonky harmonies and the rhythmic skid of the basic idea. As Adès puts it, the violin goes two steps down a corridor and, at the third, finds a door that will not open: F, the first stopped note on the violin’s top string, one of the instrument’s ‘roughest’ notes, ‘the grit in the oyster’. Here it is the point where one harmony (rising) turns into another (falling), but it remains a crux right through the piece. The violin tries several approaches to it before gaining access to a new, higher world of regular quavers, which is where the piano comes in, obliged to do so at a lower level (B, to the violin’s initial C), and then the trio enters lower still, at B flat. Thus the music builds itself from the top down, and the three layers are also proceeding in different metres.

The texture begins to fall apart and is brusquely set aside for a ticking machine in the strings over rumbling piano, from which the second subject emerges in the form of beautiful harmonic exchanges between strings and piano, now metrically aligned. These progressions gradually come to crystallize into a song in A major on the piano, sounding as if it might be a quotation from Brahms, though Adès’s model was the second subject from the opening movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Sonata, to which he was drawn for its initial instability and because ‘the whole movement feels like one long organic process’. His own continues with developments of the song leading to downward scales that have each instrument in its own rhythm, and so to a magical uprush into the high treble, from which a slow descent completes the exposition.

Development starts with the piano tackling the first subject as the strings pursue their own course. Emphatic crescendos then carry the music towards a sequence of force and astonishing ordered complexity, where the strings are all independent of the piano’s common time and of each other, careering through time signatures such as 4/5 (four quintuplet crotchets to the bar) or 1/7, as well as more regular measures. When this has settled down attention turns to the second subject, and soon the strings assume responsibility alone, through harmonic terrain that moves from the darkly rich to the tensely glistening (violins and viola only, sul tasto and without vibrato).

As the strings come to buzzing rest on and around middle B flat, the piano returns, and before long the broken chords of the opening are back. The recapitulation is compact, and includes a delectable C majorish passage with string harmonics before the final seesawing ends on an upbeat.

from notes by Paul Griffiths © 2015


Adès: The twenty-fifth hour & other chamber music
Studio Master: SIGCD413Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Movement 1: I
Movement 2: II
Movement 3: III

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