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Chamber Music

Dvořák Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81

By October 18, 2020March 19th, 2023No Comments

I am taking a little break from vocal music. Instead, I will be posting about chamber music. The first one of these postings is about Dvořák’s Quintent No.2 in A major. First, the quintent, then some words about the artists and the piece. Unfortunately, youtube seems to be peppering their streams with advertising. I apologize for that, and I hope that you can put up with it.

As you can tell, this performance was live in Moscow in 1982. The players were: the Borodin String Quartet (Mikhail Kopelman, Andrei Abramenkov, Dmitri Shebalin, Valentin Berlinsky), Sviatoslav Richter, piano.

The Borodin Quartet

Four students assembled at the Moscow Conservatory to play string quartets one afternoon in 1945. They evolved into what is known today as the Borodin Quartet. The Borodin Quartet ranks today among the great names in music-making, universally acclaimed for the richness of its sound, the profound insights of its interpretations and its enduring pursuit of artistic truth. This is the Borodin’s 70th anniversary, and this anniversary offers the chance to reflect on the remarkable continuity of the ensemble’s aesthetic values and the dedication of its members, past and present, to the high art of quartet playing. The world has changed beyond recognition since 1945; the Borodin Quartet, meanwhile, has retained its commitment to tonal beauty, technical excellence and penetrating musicianship. The ensemble’s cohesion and vision have survived successive changes in personnel, thanks not least to the common legacy shared by its members from their training at the Moscow Conservatory.

Membership of the Borodin Quartet has proved remarkably stable. Cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who was one of the original members and went on to play in the ensemble for decades, was part of the quartet when they consulted with Shostakovich about how to perform the composer’s string quartets. The current players Ruben Aharonian, Sergei Lomovsky, Igor Naidin and Vladimir Balshin carry on the tradition of the original group.

Sviatoslav Richter

Sviatoslav Richter, in full Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter, also spelled Svyatoslav Teofilovich Rikhter, (born March 7 [March 20, New Style], 1915, Zhitomir, Ukraine, Russian Empire [now Zhytomyr, Ukraine]—died Aug. 1, 1997, Moscow, Russia), Soviet pianist whose technical virtuosity combined with subtle introspection, made him one of the preeminent pianists of the 20th century. Though his repertoire was enormous, he was especially praised for his interpretations of J.S. Bach, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Sergey Prokofiev, and Modest Mussorgsky.

Richter’s father, an organist and composer, taught his son musical rudiments at an early age—the young Richter largely taught himself piano on the side. As a teenager he became a coach at the Odessa (Ukraine) Opera, where he astounded others with his sight-reading ability. Though initially a composer, by age 20 Richter had devoted himself to the piano. He made his concert debut in 1935 in Odessa, and in 1937 he became a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory. Having met Prokofiev in 1937, Richter went on to premiere the composer’s Sonata No. 6 in 1940, as well as Sonata No. 7 and Sonata No. 9 in later years. In 1945 Richter won the U.S.S.R. Music Competition. During the 1950s he toured eastern Europe and China. Meanwhile, the West eagerly awaited Richter’s appearance. “Every musician in town was present,” reported the New York Times, for his 1960 debut at Carnegie Hall. To great acclaim, he subsequently toured western Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Richter made his last appearance in 1970. He favoured intimate venues, such as the Aldeburgh festival in England, where he played Schubert duets with his friend Benjamin Britten. In 1964 Richter started a lifelong association with the French Fêtes Musicales near Tours. Because he detested the artificiality of the studio, more than half of his recordings were of live performances. Among Richter’s distinguished recorded works are his superb performances of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, as well as his controversial interpretation of Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, which exhibits an unusually slow, hypnotic first movement.

Dvořák’s Quintet No. 2 in A major

The Piano Quintet No 2 in A major was written as Dvořák approached the zenith of his international fame. It was also composed in the congenial surroundings of Dvořák’s country retreat, Vysoka. The premiere was given on January 8, 1888 at a concert in the Rudolfinum in Prague with four of the finest Czech string players of the day and the promising conductor and composer Karel Kovarovic at the piano. Publication by an enthusiastic Simrock followed—chamber music was a far more lucrative prospect for the publisher than symphonies—and the quintet began to make its triumphant way in the world.

The leisurely opening of the first movement, the cello over a rocking accompaniment by the piano, belies the vigorous activity that occupies much of the movement. The latter tendency becomes apparent with the entry of the upper strings. These contrasts of mood, which are such an appealing feature of this movement, are effected mainly by deft changes in harmonic rhythm. In the substantial development Dvořák makes use of all his themes, but gives pride of place to the opening melody which he subjects to characteristically subtle alterations. The richly textured recapitulation, in which the first violin now takes the main theme, is set off by an expansive introduction.

The slow movement, entitled Dumka, alternating slow and faster sections and a favorite form of the composer, is the lyrical heart of the work. In fact, the contrast between the two main melodies is not particularly marked, with the sensuous melody of the ‘fast’ section (Un pochettino più mosso) ambling along at a barely faster tempo than the soulful opening theme (Andante con moto). Greater contrast is to be found in the central section, marked Vivace, which takes the opening melody of the movement and develops it in order to create a climax; very much the ‘wild dance’ which Dvořák himself later spoke of when describing his conception of the Dumka.

The Scherzo has characteristics of both a fast waltz and the Furiant—Dvořák’s favored style for many of his scherzo movements in the 1880s—whose bold cross-rhythms dominate the opening melody. A more relaxed secondary idea led by the cello is based on a genial transformation of the opening melody of the quintet’s first movement. The trio comprises a gentle sequence of chords adorned by and interspersed with dreamy references to the main melody of the Scherzo. This central section reaches heights of eloquence as the two violins play its main theme against a gently rocking accompaniment from the piano.

In the sustained finale, Dvořák maintains momentum by leaving his themes open-ended; each one leads on to the next. Dvořák embarks on a vigorous passage of fugal counterpoint which overlaps with the recapitulation. After the cheerful bustle of the main part of the movement, Dvořák calms the headlong pace of the music with a series of chords. After this momentary repose the pace gradually increases and the quintet concludes with brilliant pentatonic flourishes distinctly prophetic of Dvořák’s “American” manner.