The chamber music of Antoin Dvorak is one of the great gifts of the Romantic era. Its unique character is imbued with the spirit of the folk music of his homeland and so at one is he with this idiom, that it seems that hardly a phrase can go by without invoking the rhythmic or melodic intonations of popular Czech music. Even more surprising then, that he encountered almost all of his 'folk music' through playing arrangements at the piano or in local orchestras and bands, hearing stylised versions rather than the real thing.
Married to this however, and particularly in Dvorak's later music, is a mastery of form and an aural imagination that produced many works of genius. He stands with Brahms in the German Romantic tradition, yet on the cusp of Janacek and even Bartok in his nationalist intent. His most famous works – the American Quartet, Piano Quintet or Dumky Trio for instance – have become firm favourites with audiences around the world. Nevertheless, there is a huge body of Dvořák's chamber music that is rarely heard. He left fourteen completed string quartets, four piano trios, two string quintets, a string sextet and numerous songs and duos, as well as the two piano quartets on this recording.
In 1875, Dvořák in his early thirties, was still finding his way as a composer. He had only recently been able to drop the daily grind of piano teaching and, most importantly, had early that year learned of his success in the prestigious Austrian State Prize. On the jury were the influential critic Eduard Hanslick and Johannes Brahms, who would go on to champion the works of the younger composer. In the wake of this definite upward turn in his fortunes, Dvořák went on to produce a host of works that year including his fifth symphony, an opera (Vanda) and an early jewel, the Serenade for Strings. Chamber music featured prominently too and, hot on the heels of a first piano trio in B flat major, came the Piano Quartet in D, Op. 23. It's more than likely that the young Dvořák had encountered the piano quartets by Brahms, but it seems that at this stage in his development, Schubert may have been more of an inspiration. Indeed, much later in life, in an article in 1894, Dvořák writes about his admiration for "classical models", citing Schubert as a particular example, alongside Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.
In the first movement of Dvořák's early piano quartet there are several distinct echoes of Schubert's B flat trio: the jaunty opening quaver accompaniment, the rhythmic triplet figure that follows and a charming formal device where the music seems poised on the verge of the second subject in a new key, only to revert to the home key and original theme once more. Such influences aside though, Dvořák is also laying the foundations of the harmonic language and formal strategies that would last him a lifetime. For instance, within the opening moments of the first movement it is immediately clear, with a move of disarming charm, that two different keys (in this case D and B majors) can live happily side by side within the same theme. The second subject, when it finally arrives, is a wonderful complement to the first, working its way effortlessly down the triad, where the opening had reached up. There is no conflict here, à la Beethoven, but ease and concord. Of course there are stormy passages, but the air clears quickly. The overriding impression of Dvořák in this movement is of a young composer full of ideas, who can hardly bear to put down his pen. With the repeat observed, it weighs in at over a quarter of an hour. Heavenly length indeed! (to borrow Schumann's comment on Schubert's great C major symphony).
For the remainder of the work, Dvořák departs from the Schubertian model in original and effective fashion. The second movement variations are, to my ear, the high point of this joyful quartet. The simple and poignant, folk-like theme oscillates beautifully between B minor and D major before five variations and a coda take us through a range of different dances, each deliciously characterised. As in the first movement, the theme is concerned with the three notes of a simple tonic triad and the first three variations stay close to this shape, despite transforming it with charming invention in rearranging the order and emphasis of the notes. A brief transitional passage ushers in a whirling fourth variation in a new key (or rather, keys) as E flat major this time alternates with B minor before the music returns to the tonic for the final variation, with its hint of a Viennese waltz, and concluding section which remembers the opening theme without ever quite quoting it verbatim.
The last movement combines scherzo and finale. There are overtones of a dumka, as graceful music alternates with more energetic sections, but at times this music feels less Bohemian and more in the world of the Viennese minuet, waltz and Brahmsian striding finale (when in duple time). Playfulness is never far away and a deft, witty ending caps a piece that has been smiling throughout.
Fourteen years later in 1889, Dvořák was now a composer of international celebrity and standing and his mastery of composition had also travelled a long way. The Piano Quartet in E flat, Op. 87, was written after persistent pestering from his publisher over several years. "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? " wrote Simrock, knowing that these days a new chamber work from Dvořák would be a very lucrative thing to receive. The work was composed quickly during the summer months ("The melodies just surged upon me, " wrote Dvořák to a friend) and by the end of the year performances had already taken place in Frankfurt, Munich and Manchester as well as in Prague, where the composer was present. The quartet was an immediate success and it is easy to see why.
The E flat piano quartet is one of Dvořák's mature masterpieces, perhaps this time rather more in the mould of Brahms than Schubert. Certainly the opening motto in bare octaves, giving a distinctly minor slant to the opening of a piece "officially" in the major, is reminiscent of Brahms (or even Beethoven). The music is tightly constructed and the orchestration masterful. Since the first quartet, Dvořák has developed a far broader palette in what he can achieve with four instruments: sometimes symphonic, at other times limpid and crystalline. There is far more musical material packed into this work than its endearing predecessor, but the argument is terse. Notes are not wasted. A particularly Brahmsian device in the first movement, borrowed perhaps from the elder composer's own G minor piano quartet, is to lead back to the beginning as if to repeat the exposition, only for the listener to discover shortly after that he is actually already in the development. The music is muscular and defiant, but there are intimate and lyrical moments too, not least in the soaring second subject, given initially to Dvořák's favourite instrument, the viola.
The rapt slow movement is formally simple, certainly based on the 'classical models' that Dvořák so admired, although somewhat expanded. The music unfolds in five sections, each with a folk-like flavour reminiscent of the Gypsy Songs of a few years earlier and beginning with a ravishing cello theme in three sentences. The fourth section is of almost frenzied passion and provides the contrast needed between the other, essentially lyrical, episodes. All five sections are then recapitulated, but in delightful re-scorings that shed even more wondrous light on this irresistible music. The scherzo that follows – some kind of minuet-cum-ländler – punctures the reverie with an opening salvo similar to that of the equivalent movement in the New World Symphony. Amongst the earthy good-nature of the main material there are alternate sections that are exotically folk-tinged in their vocal character and this is a sizeable movement with a surprising number of different ideas within it. The central trio introduces a galloping, foot-stamping dance and the return to the scherzo is particularly skilfully achieved over dream-like piano figurations.
The zigeuner finale would have made Brahms proud, but of course Dvořák's gypsy music is second to none. The initial minor key echoes the beginning of the whole work and here the flow of different ideas is kept on a tight rein, each deriving from and reinventing the initial material. There is a moment of particular delight when the violin and cello share the opening theme in a blithe major. The greatest contrast is reserved for the glorious second subject, which Dvořák again gives to the viola, and the explosive coda is designed to bring the house down. Rarely in the Romantic era have we been gifted with two such marvellous chamber works: music with an ebullience of spirit that soars, sings, and dances to our perpetual delight.