The Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, is easily one of the finest examples of late Romantic chamber music. Written between August and October 1887, the Quintet was not Dvorák’s first attempt at composing in the form. His first attempt nearly a decade earlier was never much to his liking and remained unpublished and largely ignored. Only after a string of successes and small triumphs did Dvorák return to the Quintet in the hopes of revising it but soon aborted the piece altogether and began work on an entirely new work.
The first movement, Allegro ma non tanto, begins with the cello stating a noble yet brief first theme atop arpeggiated piano chords. The mood is abruptly transformed by the entire ensemble’s rush into F-sharp minor before stating a fortissimo second theme in C major.
The second movement, Andante con moto, again makes use of the dumka to devastating effect. The piano introduces the movement’s main theme in the form of a delicate, wistful figure in F-sharp minor. Accompaniment by the strings is minimal and transparent so as not to intrude too heavily upon the gentle introversion of the piano’s theme. A somewhat brighter D-major interlude is provided and is followed by the main theme, this time played by viola with the piano providing understated accompaniment. The movement rushes to a close with a frenzied, schizophrenic repeat of the movement’s principal theme.
The playful third-movement scherzo, marked Molto vivace, is also in the form of a furiant, which is not quite evident until the trio section where Dvorák ingeniously tinkers with the rhythm.
The Allegro finale, in the form of a rondo, begins with a furious burst of syncopation in the piano leading to a series of raucous 16th-note passages in the strings. The second violin leads the movement’s main theme into a fugue-like development. The brakes are applied at the coda, which Dvorák marked tranquillo, as a stately chorale offers one final bit of introspection punctuated by the piano. The tempo once again picks up as the movement rushes to an exuberant close.
J. Anthony McAlister is a writer and cellist. He is currently at work on a fictional history of the House of Windsor.1