As with Franz Schubert, Antonín Dvořák was a composer awash in melody. In a letter to a friend, dated August 10, 1889, Dvořák expressed gratitude for this seemingly effortless melodic stream:
Do you want to know what I’m doing? My head is full of it. If only one could write it immediately! But it’s no use, I have to go slowly, only what the hand can manage and the Lord God will grant the rest of it. Now I have again already three movements of a new quartet with piano completely ready and the finale will be finished in several days. It’s going unexpectedly easily and melodies are coming to me in droves. Thanks be to God!
The work referenced was the Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 87, written by Dvořák during the summer of 1889. Dvořák wrote the Quartet at the urging of his publisher, Simrock, who, in one letter, prodded the composer with the words, “I should like to receive a piano quartet from you at last – you promised me this a long time ago! Well? How is it faring?”
The first movement (Allegro con fuoco) begins with a bold statement delivered in unison by the strings. Infused with the inflections of Czech folk music, this motif forms the seed out of which the entire movement develops. Soon, it is answered by an equally spirited statement in the piano. In these opening bars, exuberant instrumental “characters” spring to life and sweep us along on an edge-of-your-seat journey which promises heroism and glittering adventure, as well as moments of warmth and tender introspection. At times, passionate, voluminous string lines meet magical, cascading splashes of color in the piano. Surprises lurk around every corner. In the final moments, the music picks up steam and surges forward, only to dissipate suddenly into shadowy tremolo before reaching the true concluding cadence.
Beginning with the soulful voice of the cello, the second movement (Lento), set in G-flat major, opens the door to a far-reaching drama. Moments of quiet nostalgia and shimmering tranquility are offset by fiery, passionate outbursts. One melody gives way to another, effortlessly. The final bars drift off into gentle repose.
The third movement (Allegro moderato, grazioso – Un pochettino più mosso) begins with the lilting motion of an Austrian Ländler. Soon, it takes an exotic turn towards the harmonies of Bohemian folk music. The trio section tosses all cares away with a sunny, bucolic dance. Ida Kavafian observes that the piano enters in a folk-inspired “cimbalom style.”
With vigorous energy and abandon, the final movement (Allegro ma non troppo) erupts as a spirited Czech folk dance. It is propelled into motion with another exuberant unison statement, now including the piano. This is music filled with earthy foot stomps and swirling canonic conversations. The autumnal second theme trails off into a statement of wistful nostalgia which remains in our ears long after the thrilling final cadence has died away.
This concert performance from the 2012 Lugano Festival features “Martha Argerich and Friends.” The pianist Martha Argerich is joined by violinist Ilya Gringolts, violist Nathan Braude, and cellist Torleif Thedéen.
I. Allegro con fuoco:
III. Allegro moderato, grazioso – Un pochettino più mosso:
IV. Finale. Allegro ma non troppo:
Five Great Recordings
- Dvorák: Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 87, B. 162: I. Allegro con fuoco · Martha Argerich · Ilya Gringolts · Nathan Braude · Torleif Thedéen Amazon
- Menahem Pressler and the Emerson String Quartet
- Dvořák Piano Quartet
- András Schiff and the Panocha Quartet
- Jaime Laredo, Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, and Yo-Yo Ma
Featured Image: “View of Karlštejn Castle near Prague” (1903), Tavík František Šimon