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Antonín Dvorák

String quartet n°14
Piano quintet n°2

The Psophos quartet, with
Dana Ciocarlie, piano


String quartet n°14, opus 105, B. 193

Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro appassionato
Molto vivace
Lento e molto cantabile
Allegro ma non tanto

Piano quintet n°2, opus 81, B. 155

Allegro, ma non tanto
Dumka. Andante con moto
Scherzo. (Furiant) Molto vivace
Finale. Allegro

Total duration : 74’45
Sound recording : Jean-Marc Laisné.
Recorded at the Auditorium from ADAC,
place Nationale, 75013 Paris,
on 5, 6, 7 and 8 june 2006.
Booklet : Nicolas Southon.

AR RE-SE 2006-2

Antonín Dvorák: treasures of a Bohemian life

« You can praise my music, but the most important thing to me will be what they think of it here, in Bohemia. »
Antonín Dvorák

April, 1895. After two and a half years in the United States, Antonín Dvorák (1841-1905) comes back to Bohemia. The Czech composer’s American stay is one of the most famous episodes in his biography. His New York house, which he inhabited with his wife Anna and two of their children, was the place where he composed his best-known works: the Ninth Symphony, known as the “New World Symphony” (opus 95, B. 178, 1893), and the “American Quartet”, n°12 (opus 93, B. 179, 1893). To these we might add The American Flag (opus 102, B. 177, 1894), the so-called “American” Suite for piano (opus 98, B. 184, 1894) and the Third String Quintet, known as the “Indian Quintet” (opus 97, B. 180, 1893), to complete the list of works inspired to Dvorák by African-American and Native American musical traditions and mythologies. The use of pentatonic melodies, themes akin to Negro spirituals, rhythms that are syncopated or are reminiscent of Native American traditions, natural minor harmonies are the ethnic elements that permeate these works. With American or Native American folklore – just as with Bohemian folklore – Dvorák was, however, careful to reinvent more than to borrow: as he himself explained, “I have simply written personal themes, giving them the features of Black and Redskin music”.

Dvorák had been called to the New World by Jeannette Thurber, a rich music lover who wanted to create in New York a Conservatory that would equal the one in Paris, in which she had once studied. A few years after she opened her institution, this patron of music wanted to appoint at its helm a charismatic and recognized personality, secretly hoping to trigger the birth of a national school of composition. Thus, in 1891, she had the idea of contacting Dvorák, the Czech composer whose fame had been growing steadily ever since his Slavonic Dances (opus 46, B. 78, 1878) and his Stabat Mater (opus 58, B. 71, 1877) were hailed throughout Europe at the end of the 1870s. After some hesitation, the composer had taken up the contract offered to him. By doing so, he lived up to the challenge of a new life, rather than to take advantage of the European success and comfort that were already granted to him. In the following years, Dvorák led the American school of Opera in New York, taught composition, directed concerts, composed new works, discovered a musical tradition that was unknown to him. Surrounded by gifted pupils, he managed to seduce the Americans with his dynamism and talent. His exile soon became a highly successful one, to the point that having honoured his first contract, the composer signed a second one in April 1894, that ran until the Spring of 1896. Between May and October 1894, Dvorák took some rest in his native Bohemia, before travelling back for his new American season. But from then on the auspices seemed less favorable to his peace of mind.

The musician experiences mishap after mishap, which affect his morale and creativity. After bad news from his father, sick and isolated in Velvary, Dvorák hears at the end of the year of the death of his close friend Marie Cervinková-Riegrová, the author of the libretti for his operas Dimitri (B. 127, 1882) and Jakobín (The Jacobine, opus 84, B. 159, 1888). A few months later, he receives alarming news from his dear sister-in-law Josefina. In addition, his Second Concerto for Cello (opus 104, B. 191), still in progress, creates some problems for him as the soloist demands that some passages be modified. Finally, it becomes clear that his mother-in-law is now too old to take care of her four grandchildren who have remained back home. The Dvoráks go back to Prague in April 1895 to support Josefina. Dvorák’s sister-in-law, with whom he had been in love before marrying Anna, dies in May. All these events shake up the composer: the American glory does not amount to much in regard to the loved ones and the importance of roots. He breaks up the contract that binds him to Jeannette Thurber; he and his family will not go back to the United States. Back in Vysoká, he resumes a calmer lifestyle, between selected friends and solitary hikes on his favourite paths.

From the New World to Bohemia, or coming back to the self

Dvorák has composed nothing since his Cello Concerto, except the beginning of a string quartet, drafted on March 25th in New York, shortly before leaving. The musician does not work on it for the time being, for a new work, also a quartet, occupies him from November 11th to December 9th: the 13th Quartet (opus 106, B. 192). Immediately after that, Dvorák goes back to his New York sketches. By the following 30th of December, they become the 14th String Quartet (opus 105, B. 193). Finished after the 13th Quartet, the 14th was therefore projected before, which explains the inverted opus numbers. These twin works, both genuinely grand in conceptual terms, bear witness to the new found peace of mind and inspiration: “After three years, we are happy that we are able to spend the merry Christmas holidays in Bohemia, contrary to last year, when we were in America, so far and separated from our children and friends. But the Good Lord has given us this moment and that is why we are all so happy. I am now hard at work. I work with such an ease that I could not have wished for more”, Dvorák wrote a friend on December 23rd. And it probably is no coincidence that his return to composition, after his return home, takes the shape of the purifying string quartet form. After many ailments and several months without taking up the quill, Dvorák finds his way back to creativity through what constitutes the essence of musical writing. There is no need, indeed, to insist on the virtues generally bestowed on the quartet, the most demanding and the most serious of the genres of Western classical music, especially since Beethoven has devoted to it his most visionary inspirations. A privileged place for experiments, the string quartet can also be the melting pot for a stylistical perfection that seeks synthesis more than novelty. This is where Dvorák stands with his 13th and 14th Quartets. After the trip to the United States, it is also necessary to evacuate the American colour which permeated the 12th Quartet. In the opus 105, nothing will stand as an obstacle to the musical thought, the writing will be nothing else than a pure lyrical movement, almost totally exempt from any anecdote, cleared from any other concern than that of bringing together harmoniously four melodic lines. The 14th Quartet therefore appears as a farewell to America: its foundations were laid there, but its musical substance does not once refer to it. By the transition between the New World and Bohemia that it contains, it is, as has been said, the work that epitomizes the coming back home, but also the coming back to the self. In an unmistakable symbol, the Quartet is first performed on April 16th, 1896, which is the anniversary of Dvorák’s return to Bohemia, during a concert given by students of the Prague Conservatory at the Platyz Hotel. The “official” première, by the renowned Rosé Quartet, takes place in Vienna on November 10th, 1896. On December 20th, the work is played by the Dannreuthe Quartet in New York, and on January 21st, 1897 by the quite distinguished Bohemian Quartet in Prague (the second violin is composer Josef Suk, Dvorák’s future son-in-law, while the cello part is held by Hanus Wihan, the whimsical first performer of the Concerto). Only three months later, the protector and dear friend Johannes Brahms passes away. His death marks the end of an era for Dvorák, that of his first steps up the ladder, until his great successes. In the seven remaining years of his life, the Czech will go back to the genres that he had cultivated in his youth: mainly the opera and the symphonic poem.

The Quartet n°14 (opus 105, B. 193)

I. ADAGIO MA NON TROPPO – ALLEGRO APPASSIONATO. Upon a somber, sinuous motif, the instruments appear one by one, from the lowest to the highest. The imitative mode points to the creation of a miniature world (until 00’23), in the shady A-flat minor key: nothing less than a slow introduction, an introductory section once characteristic of classical structures, up until Schubert’s or Berlioz’s Symphonies. Unstable and tentative, this Adagio ma non troppo leads to the affirmation of the first theme (1’13), Allegro appassionato, which turns out to be the mutation of the initial sinuous motif: the indecisiveness has become determination, the shade has turned into clarity. As a response to the weighty introduction, the melody soars in the official key of the work, A-flat major. As a complement, a second melodic indent, even more song-like, appears soon (1’31) and is to be found again later. What we have heard since the end of the introduction is the exploration of the first tonal zone. Now starts the transition towards the second one: the cello and the two violins break into a more offensive dialogue (1’47), then merge on the first theme (1’59) and resume a pacified dialogue (2’18). The second tonal zone commences afterwards, in the E-flat major key (dominant to the main key, as is required): a stampede breaks out (2’29), supported by a low-roaring cello. The mechanism is perfect, one can imagine a fighting warrior, dealing his blows, relenting, then coming back to his triumph (2’55). After this whole exposition, a Poco sostenuto e tranquillo (3’11) opens the development, which mostly uses the first theme’s sinuosity as both a main line and an acompaniment, unfolding in a passionate discourse on perpetual sixteenth notes. The accessory melody of the first theme resurfaces here and has a soothing effect (4’49). Its premature return signals the imminence of the recapitulation: the first theme appears almost imperceptibly, as though in a dissolve (5’22). Just as in the exposition, the dialogue between the cello and the two violins (5’47) heralds the second section, which is presented in the main key of A flat instead of E flat (such is the rule in recapitulations). The stampede (5’58) is as admirably graduated as the first time. Finally, a “Coda” in Meno mosso (6’37) blends the first theme with its accessory melody before bringing this first movement to a brilliant conclusion.

II. MOLTO VIVACE. Here is the quick movement of the quartet, that comes in a traditional form: Scherzo/Trio/Scherzo. The Scherzo sounds like a furiant, a Czech popular dance that is made picturesque by the shifts in the rhythmical accents. A mischievous rhythmic motif in F minor breaks out from the outset – its brutal termination (0’06, 0’15) becoming a theme of its own right. Within a plentiful writing buzzing with a thousand details embedded in an extraordinary fashion, a popular spirit reigns, though it is transcended by a stunning technical command – especially where rhythm is concerned. The last section of the Scherzo repeats the main motif (1’17). In the naturally calmer Trio, situated in the neighboring key of D flat minor, Dvorák borrows the lullaby “This sweet child’s smile” from his opera Jakobín. The warm melody, supported throughout the section by vibrant chords, does not disclose its dramatic origin. It first engages in a dialogue with the cello (1’43), then modulates (2’49) and even transforms into a canon (3’31), with the cello pouring once again its effusive counterpoint (3’13). After a virtual love duet between the two violins (3’45), a quieter section (4’27) brings the Trio to an end, which heralds the return of the Scherzo through the reminder of its main motif (4’45). The second appearance of the Scherzo is identical to the first one, with only the repeat bars added.

III. LENTO E MOLTO CANTABILE. This movement in “Lied” form (ABA) is actually more fervent and lyrical than quiet. Although its phrase arrangement is very classical, it is led in a very romantic way thanks to the efficient gradation of its effusions. A first theme appears, tender and ample, and is already enriched by a second line when it is repeated (0’43). A second theme, even more tender, receives the same treatment, when it is first distinctly entrusted to the first violin (1’26), then magnified by a second voice and various ornaments in its second exposition (2’28). The art consists here in the exacerbation of expressivity through repetitions and variations. In the central, more tenebrous part, an ostinato by the cello (3’49) supports an anguished inflection of the violins and viola; then the writing is inverted as the ostinato runs in the high register (4’29). Carried away by the chromaticism, the music becomes more ardent (4’55), before quickly settling down. The return of the first section is initially indicated by the presence of pizzicati (5’28), but above all by the buzzing of the second violin. The unfolding is quite different from the first presentation: one sequence is missing but above all, the ornamentative lushness brings the discourse to heights of effusiveness. A coda (7’38) conjures up again the anguished motif of the central section, as a bad memory finally swept away by the serene progression in the high register of the first violin.

IV. ALLEGRO MA NON TANTO. The last movement of the quartet is by far the vastest. Because of its formal complexity it would be somewhat cumbersome to describe it in a linear way, but some of its peculiarities should be dwelt upon. First of all, its thematic frugality: this vigorous and incredibly inventive page rests on nearly one single motif, which is exposed, bare, from the outset by the cello. Amid its many developments, it resurfaces at given times, played by the violin (4’06) or the cello (4’47), thus giving its consistence to the discourse. The presence of a tranquil tune (1’53) should also be noted. It comes back in a transposed form towards the end of the movement (6’20). As a proof that the rhetorics of the sonata form is not absent from this movement, even though it is primarily defined by the lively and playful finery of a rondo, come contrasts, boosts, section dissolves, whirlpools of sixteenth notes. Under the sign of this luminous bliss, Dvorák bides farewell to quartet and chamber music.

Redeeming a “youthful indiscretion”

Going back in time, the 1880s are the years of Dvorák’s first big successes, as we have seen above. Britain welcomes his music with particular enthusiasm. The composer travels there several times between 1884 and 1886, for example to conduct his Stabat Mater (at the Royal Albert Hall, before an audience of 12.000), his Sixth Symphony (opus 60, B. 112, 1880), his Nocturne for string orchestra (B. 47, 1882). In addition, he chooses Britain for the first performance of his Seventh Symphony (opus 170, B. 141, 1885), his oratorio The Holy Ludmila (opus 71, B. 144, 1886) and his cantata Svatebni kosile (The nuptial Shirts, opus 69, B. 135, 1884). These tours are profitable, whereas Austria and Germany take a dim view of Dvorák’s musical nationalism. As a matter of fact, the composer defines himself as “a simple Czech musician, who hears music everywhere around him: in forests, in wheat fields, in stream water, in folk songs… Nature, stories are the sources of my inspiration. You can praise my music, but the most important thing to me will be what they think of it here, in Bohemia; I shall be moved and happy if it is welcomed with love.” In 1884, the composer acquired a house in Vysoká, south from Prague. From then on he spends part of the year there, from spring to autumn, between composition and walks in the woods, chatting with the local farmers or welcoming his musician friends. The calm family atmosphere of these stays in Southern Bohemia is indeed favorable to the birth of a rich and diverse chamber repertoire. In this production, Dvorák reveals an aspect of himself that was little known previously. His Bohemian romanticism, hitherto torn between Brahms and the more modern school of Liszt and Wagner, becomes enlightened with a typically classical purity and serenity that were to become one of his signature marks. Besides working on new projects (particularly the Mass in D, opus 86, B. 153), the composer goes back in 1887 to his first scores, thus reviewing his first String Quartet from 1862, still unpublished, and transcribing for string quartet twelve songs from the cycle The Cypresses (B.11), inspired in 1865 by his passion for Josefina Cermáková – the elder sister of his future wife Anna. Dvorák also searches for the manuscript of his 1872 Piano Quintet (opus 5, B. 28), one of the great successes among his first compositions. He requests a copy of the manuscript from the friend who had prompted its creation, explaining to him: “At present I am enjoying glancing through my youthful indiscretions.” Dvorák is surprised by the inventiveness displayed in his own work, though he finds some flaws in it: too wordy, poorly structured, sometimes pretentious. The reviewing that he submits it to does not satisfy him which leads him to start working on a piece with the same instruments and key. Between the 18th of August and the 3rd of October, his second Piano Quintet (opus 81, B. 55) comes to life – and this is how by redeeming a “youthful indiscretion”, one gives birth to one of the masterpieces of chamber music! Its first performance takes place on January 6th, 1888, by Karel Kovařovic (piano), Karel Ondricek and Jan Pelikán (violin), Petr Mares (viola) and Alois Neruda (cello) at the Umelecká beseda (“Union of Artists”) – a society that Dvorák had taken part in since its foundation in 1863. During this same concert, the string quartet version of the Cypresses (B.152) and the first String Quartet (opus 2, B. 8) are also played for the first time.

The Piano Quintet n°2 (opus 81, B. 155)

I. ALLEGRO MA NON TANTO. Written in sonata form, this movement was often compared, by its force and perfection, to Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and to Schumann’s opus 44.

The first theme, sung by a lyrical cello and supported by the velvety undulations of the piano, grasps the listener from the outset (the writing is reminiscent of the first measures of the Quintet opus 5). Its generous, noble outline leads from the main A major key to its namesake A minor. In response, the quintet blazes up (0’32) and leads us already through more remote tonal regions, apparently ending up in a repeat of the initial theme by the piano (1’23), warmly supported by the strings. False alarm: it is the violin that does it in the high register (1’37). As previously, the quintet responds with a more agitated episode (2’04) whose triplets make it sound like a tarantella. After this transition, the second theme of the movement, more pathetic than the first one, unfolds in C sharp minor. It is first carried by the viola alone (2’32), supported by anxious drumming at the piano, then by the violin, accompanied by all the other instruments. A variation follows (3’03), swelling with lyricism; a moving but short passage, contradicted by more tormented motifs (3’15). Taken over by all the strings (3’55), this second theme finally reappears vigorously, as a peroration to this exposition – entirely repeated, as required by the repeat bar indicated by Dvorák. The development, opened by ghostly piano arpeggios which would not have been out of place in a work by Brahms (8’14), is based on the first theme (8’30), coloring its harmonics with expressive modulations, and on the more agitated version of the second theme (9’11). The transition sections of the exposition are not left aside and also provide a basis for variations (9’42). The discourse then subsides (10’39) and conjures up the first theme (11’04) through an exchange between piano and viola that grows in intensity, and out of which the theme erupts in incandescence (11’25). Thus the recapitulation is introduced (11’41), deprived from the initial appearance of the first theme at the cello. It might therefore be no coincidence that the cello (and no longer the viola) is entrusted with the second theme (12’35), which is now played in the key of F sharp minor. Apart from these details, the recapitulation unfolds in a comparable way to the exposition. The ghostly arpeggios introduce a final development (14’11) that exploits to the fullest the potential of the second theme, which is now proclaimed in a heroic tutti (14’26), before a jubilant, popular-like Coda (14’43) wraps up this page of almost symphonic might.

II. DUMKA. ANDANTE CON MOTO. The slow movement of the Quintet is written as a Rondo: ABACABA (the A section acts therefore as a refrain). Its title defines this page as a Dumka; but only the refrain can really claim to be inspired from this nostalgic ballad from Ukraine, which is close to recitative (Dvorák will use it again in his famous fourth piano Trio, “Dumki”, B. 166, opus 90, in 1891).

As an opening to this movement whose poetic force and expressive contrasts are admirable, section “A” unfolds a poignant theme, in F sharp minor. Its eloquence and the restraint of the accompaniments suggest indeed a stylized recitative. The keyboard, the viola and the violin exchange their respective phrases, which are embedded in extremely delicate textures. The atmosphere is an elegiac, but also a somewhat grave one – reminiscent of the In modo d’una marcia in Schumann’s opus 44. The piano displays a frugality that is seldom heard in music; the octaves it pours out as a counterpoint to the quartet are simple but quite beautiful. A transition (2’20) leads to section “B” in D major, pochettino più mosso: the two violins embark on a radiant duet (2’38), wrapped in a texture that is steadily animated by the pizzicati of the cello and viola and by the low chords and arpeggios of the piano. Then comes a second episode (3’22), whose textures are close to the first one, although the piano melody dominates. The “A” refrain returns immediately thereafter (4’31) and unfolds in almost identical fashion to its first appearance, except that the instrumental roles have been inverted: to sum it up, the quartet sings and the piano punctuates. Although short, the central section “C” brings a welcome contrast in this long movement. Supported by the almost “cardiac” throbbing of the piano (6’57), the strings embark one after another in a vigorous and dance-like Vivace in F sharp major; it is worth noticing that its theme is a spectacular metamorphosis of the initial motif of the refrain. Following a sudden break (7’38), a more identifiable version of this motif calms things down and introduces once more section “A” (7’51), whose writing is once again different: the violin and the viola’s duet is accompanied by the descending arpeggios of the piano and the punctuations of the second violin. This is immediately followed by a new appearance of the “B” section (9’14), this time in F sharp major. Finally the refrain returns one last time (11’06). More poignant than ever, it features once again different instrumental repartitions, then heads towards a closing in the low register.

III. SCHERZO. (FURIANT) MOLTO VIVACE. The Furiant announced by Dvorák (a Czech popular dance of a lively character) should be construed as a quick waltz, along the lines of Schubert’s waltzes (one could also be reminded of the Scherzando of opus 100, although slower). The devilish writing of the three-part movement (ABA) brings in a perfect contrast with the emotion of the previous Andante.

Three melodic elements animate the first section “A”. The main one appears from the outset, played by the quartet alone and instantly taken over by the piano: lively and joyful melodic spirals soar with insouciance towards the high register. The second element is a popular-like tune played by the cello (0’12). It is completed by a variation of the spirals (0’21), which completely take over (0’29). Then comes the third, calmer element, at the viola (0’42), the second violin (0’56), then the piano (1’11); the spirals punctuate it at regular intervals (0’52, 1’07), thus granting its unity to this thematic mosaic. The spirals, once again, brilliantly conclude the first section of the movement (1’21). The chords of a lulling choral bring about the appeased atmosphere of the central section “B” (1’43). The spirals are played again, in a more languid form, by the viola (1’52), the violin (2’08) and the piano (2’12). Resting on the chords of the “choral”, a new tune appears, first played by the viola (2’32), then by the violins in octaves (2’49). The spirals reappear in a dialogue with the choral (3’04). An acceleration brings back the first section “A”, now deprived of its third melodic element.

IV. FINALE. ALLEGRO. The exuberant last movement of Dvorák’s Quintet is structured as a Sonata in rondo form. This is to say, simply put, that the two themes of a usual “sonata form” are built so as to give the impression of an alternance between characterized episodes and a refrain. The whole thing proceeds from the well-known rhetoric consisting in showing the second theme in the main key during the recapitulation, whereas the exposition had shown it in the dominant key. So much for theory. As for practice, it is both more delightful and even more complex. How to describe, indeed, the incredible inventiveness that Dvorák displays throughout this Finale? Let us proceed by showing the main stages of the discourse.

After an introduction, the first theme is played by the first violin (0’11), in A major. It is a virtuoso and dancing one (some commentators compare it to a polka) that is already developed, repeated many times and blended into the motif of the introduction. After a transition which showcases piano virtuosity (0’43), the first violin chimes in again for the second theme, in E major, divided into several episodes: a piquant, stressed phrase (1’18), a magnificent, lyrical one (1’31), a strange and smooth punctuating element (1’40), a passage bathed in syncopations (1’56), the return of the punctuating element (2’08). The introduction comes back (2’28), and along with it comes the first theme (2’39) – this is the beginning of the development according to the “sonata form” and the return of the refrain according to the “rondo form”. Blended with the motif of the introduction (2’48), this theme gives rise to multiple developments, where virtuosity is only second to variety of atmospheres. The mechanism slows down (3’35), a curtain haloed in mystery appears (3’35) and rises on a formidable fugato (3’39): the instruments take on the first theme one after another. The tension rises to its highest (4’16); it is now about bringing it down without losing intensity. The first theme returns on a note held by the cello (4’20), then a choral breaks in (4’37), a peculiar instant of contemplation, a spectral and superb intervention in the middle of this apotheosis of dance. After some scraps from the first theme (4’42), in a murmur of trills, the second theme returns (4’59), all with its different episodes, now played in the key of A major. The mysterious choral reappears to predict the end of the movement. A stately, appeased one it could be, had it not been for the turbulent first theme, which tames itself at first near the choral, but then finds all of its pride again.

Nicolas Southon
May 2006
Translation: Jennifer Arenson-Escorcia

The Press covers it !

« After having written a First Quintet for piano and strings in 1872 that he was disappointed with himself, Dvorak composes in 1887 his Quintet in A, opus 81. This is one of his best scores and reflects an optimism that is unique in this repertoire. This work is both beautiful and fragile; although not altogether comparable to the greatest Quintets for piano and strings (Schumann, Brahms, Franck, Fauré, Schmitt, Shostakovich), it has reached the same degree of fame. It is somewhat indebted to Schubert and Schumann, and a lot to Brahms, but its Slavic inflexions are characteristic of the author. Planned before the 13th Quartet but finished afterwards, the 14th Quartet (1895) is Dvorak’s very last chamber music score. Although built around four movements, this work goes back to a pre-classical order, with the Scherzo in second position. The final Rondo-sonata, which is particularly rich, starts at the lowest register of the cello before bursting into what can be called an overflow of bliss. The young musicians of the Psophos Quartet, who won the First Grand Prize of the Bordeaux International Contest in 2001, conduct the 14th Quartet with a sweeping gesture and impose a free and precise discourse with nostalgic inflections and sudden bursts of emotion. The whole interpretation is impressively consistent, and while it is rather distant from Czech accents, it keeps its lightness and transparency. The interpretation made in collaboration with young Romanian-born pianist Dana Ciocarlie of the Quintet opus 81 is remarkable for its nostalgia and balance. »

Le Monde de la Musique, December 2006, Patrick Szersnovicz


CD produced with the support of Mécenat Musical Société Générale