Piano Quartet No. 2, Op. 87
The mastery with which some composers excel in one genre or another, when equally gifted colleagues struggle with or avoid some forms altogether, is just as puzzling as why some of us prefer German music and others are devoted Francophiles, some focus on piano and chamber music as much as others turn out to be ardent enthusiasts of the most obscure Baroque operas. Certainly it would be acknowledged by most listeners that Antonín Dvořák (in addition to his success as a composer of nine symphonies and the occasional concerto) was especially at ease in the area of chamber music including strings and piano, having produced more than a dozen string quartets, a series of piano trios, a piano quintet, and two works for the mid-size combination known as the piano quartet. His earlier effort for this particular instrumental grouping (which was introduced by Mozart and espoused in limited fashion by Schumann and Brahms, along with Fauré, but few others) was the Op. 23 Quartet published in 1880, which is even more neglected than the 1889 score to be heard this evening. Following as it does by just a few years the popular Piano Quintet, Op. 81, there is if anything a greater sense of dramatic conviction and intensity in Dvořák’s Op. 87. The forthright statement of the opening theme in the strings is answered directly by the piano, although the two elements of the ensemble soon find themselves combining in a diverse array of interweaving and overlapping textures. The tone shifts often between a swaggering enthusiasm and a heartfelt lyricism, with side journeys into paragraphs of intense passion. The extended slow movement is built around as many as five different themes, allowing Dvořák to explore a wealth of emotional states. The following movement, often described as a Ländler, is announced by a brief fanfare, then moves into ethnic territory, while offering a potent reminder of the composer’s debt to Schubert, one of the few earlier masters whose music manages to match the Bohemian composer in the realm of melody. The full sound of the ensemble that opens the final Allegro signals that this will not be a simple, light-hearted closing, but a vigorously animated affair with plenty of instrumental interplay. It is the longest of the four movements except for the Lento, and reveals Dvořák’s seemingly endless inventiveness.
— Dennis Bade