Romantic Piano Quintets

Sunday, January 28 @ 3:30pm

The 25th anniversary season of West Coast Chamber Music will be spectacularly opened by two magnificent piano quintets from the romantic era. Robert Schumann partnered the piano with a string quartet in his monumental and exuberant Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op.44 , pioneering this combination of instruments as a new chamber music form. This piece is sensationally paired with Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, Op.1, a piece of great brilliance and lush splendor.

Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op.44
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

  • Allegro brillante
  • In modo d’una marcia: Un poco largamente- Agitato
  • Scherzo: molto vivace
  • Allegro ma non troppo

Robert Schumann spent the first decade of his composing life writing piano music. Then came his songs, later orchestral music, then finally in 1842, he turned his attention to chamber music as a fully mature composer. 1842 became known as his chamber music year, and he penned his most popular chamber work, the Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44. He combined, for the first time in history, the piano with the classic string quartet, thus initiating what was to become a standard Romantic genre. He dedicated the work to his wife Clara, the formidable pianist, who fell ill before the first private performance in December of 1842, so Mendelssohn had to step in at the last minute to play the piano part. He said it was “fiendishly difficult.” Clara performed the public premiere in January of 1843 and performed it repeatedly throughout her lifetime and is largely responsible for its success.

The first movement, Allegro brillante, opens with a commanding first theme of resounding chords and a melody of wide ascending intervals. The second theme of rising and falling scales is much gentler in nature and passes lyrically between the instruments. The second movement, In modo d’una marcia, is a solemn stately march, some say a funeral march that serves as a recurring section between contrasting episodes. The first episode is more flowing and expressive, while the second, more agitated and dramatic. The third movement, Scherzo, glitters with urgent ascending and descending scales accompanied by a throbbing repeated note motif and punctuating chords. The first trio section offers the contrast of a simple melody echoing amongst the strings, and the second trio section a more demanding texture requiring fleet finger work. The finale, Allegro ma non troppo, is insistent, driving, intense with vast sweeping lines. Just when we can’t imagine anything more could possibly come, Schumann gives us a fugue using the main themes of both his first and last movements, thus tying the work together in a triumphant finish.

“Splendid, full of vigour and freshness…” Clara Schumann

Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1
Ernest von Dohnanyi (1877-1960)

  • Allegro
  • Scherzo: Allegro vivace – trio – Reprise
  • Adagio, quasi andante
  • Finale: Allegro animato – Allegro

Ernest von Dohnanyi wrote the Piano Quintet in C minor, Op.1 when he was just 18 years old and it was his first published work. Once Brahms had a look at it, he fully endorsed the work and immediately promoted it in Vienna with himself playing the piano. This launched Dohnanyi as a major new composing talent. He amassed a huge output of compositions in his lifetime: choral, orchestral, concertos, piano and chamber music. As a virtuoso pianist, he toured much of Europe and later America and even included some chamber music in his concert programs, which was not usually done. He also became a renowned conductor, directing the Budapest Philharmonic for a time amongst various other appointments, and was an esteemed teacher.

The first movement of his quintet, Allegro, opens on a grand scale with a first theme both dramatic and passionate. The contrasting second theme lyrically floats above a pizzicato cello line. The second movement, Scherzo, is a fast, vibrant dance with an alternate trio section, smooth, soothing and romantic. The third movement, Adagio, quasi andante, is introduced by the viola with a soft piano accompaniment and offers an autumnal precious quality, and is later joined by the violin and cello. The emotional and musical tension rises towards its conclusion. The Finale movement gives us a very triumphant first theme in contrast to a more lyrical second theme introduced by the cello, and even a fugal section with a light and melodic overlapping of voices. The music culminates with a musical intensity of great vigour and weight exemplary of youthful exuberance.

“I could not have written it better myself!” …Johannes Brahms