Toggle open/close

Franz Joseph Haydn

Piano Concerto in D

Jeremy Denk, piano

Haydn’s opportunities to profit from his music broadened in 1779, when he negotiated a new contract with the Esterházy family that permitted him to sell scores more freely. He soon cashed in on his popularity around Europe, offering his music to publishers in Vienna, Paris, London and other cultural capitals.

Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in D Major comes from that period of outward expansion in his career. Composed sometime between 1780 and 1783, Haydn arranged for it to be performed and published in Paris in 1784. To expand its marketability, Haydn labeled it as a concerto either for the older harpsichord or for the newer fortepiano, the forerunner of the modern concert grand piano.

Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, who launched their careers as keyboard virtuosos, Haydn never cultivated the same kind of reputation as a performer. Consequently, he wrote relatively few keyboard concertos, since he did not need them for his own performances. Many of the surviving examples are of dubious authenticity, but the concerto cataloged as No. 11 is definitely Haydn’s own. The opening Vivace movement is a charming example of the galant style then in fashion, with tuneful melodies and unclouded harmonies. In the slow movement, marked Un poco adagio, the music comes closer to the new style of piano concerto that Mozart was approaching at the same time in Vienna, in which the soloist functions almost as an operatic protagonist, delivering singing melodies and conversing with the accompanying players. A central episode in a contrasting minor key further intensifies the emotional impact.

The finale brings the concerto’s flashiest music, which Haydn labeled a Hungarian Rondo. Scholars have actually identified his source material as a Croatian folksong, of the type he would have been likely to hear in the ethnically diverse region of Austria where he grew up, with Hungary just to the east, or when he was at Esterháza, his patron’s palace built on a site that is now within the borders of Hungary. The piano part makes liberal use of the acciaccatura, or “crushed note,” in which a grace note approaches the melodic note from a half-step below. It creates a jangly effect on the piano, not unlike the sound of the cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer) and other Hungarian folk instruments.

Aaron Grad ©2015

Toggle open/close
Watch Video

Dmitri Shostakovich

Chamber Symphony in F for Strings and Winds

The Third String Quartet of Shostakovich shares the neo-Classical bent of his Ninth Symphony, composed a year earlier. The balanced, Mozartean phrases of their opening movements sound as odd as can be for music emerging from the ruins of World War II, when Soviet artists of the era were on the steps of another round of bureaucratic abuse. The string quartet shares a few other traits with the symphony, including a doleful movement and another cast as an unhinged dance. They both have five movements, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim claimed was reserved for his “greatest and most serious compositions.”

Shostakovich completed the string quartet in August 1946, at his state-supplied dacha in Komarova, a small town that was a popular spot for summer vacations. It starts with a carefree, jaunty theme, which gives way to a darker melody that wanders seemingly aimlessly before being sliced off midstream. The quartet largely keeps with Classical-era formality, ending with a properly strong cadence. The second movement opens up new territory with a motorically rising accompaniment, providing support for a jagged melody. Shostakovich’s tone is stern and angry, but the sort of anger that keeps its actions in check.

The third movement boils over with slashing chords at the outset, followed by one of Shostakovich’s macabre minor-key dances. The fourth is a series of mournful passages, each with its own melancholy sound. Mystery pervades the final movement, as the searching melodies pass around each other slowly. The mystery isn’t dispelled by the end, as a high violin drifts away, far above a placid accompaniment. According to the violist who gave the quartet’s premiere, the Beethoven Quartet’s Fyodor Druzhinin, this quartet led to one of Shostakovich’s rare public displays of emotion for his own music: “When we finished playing, he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face.”

Rudolf Barshai has been a lifelong proponent of Shostakovich’s music, first as his composition student; later as a violist in the Borodin Quartet, which premiered several of Shostakovich’s string quartets; and then as a conductor. Barshai led the first performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony in 1960 and recorded all of Shostakovich’s symphonies with the Cologne Radio Orchestra. He’s orchestrated several of Shostakovich’s quartets, and the winds, harp and timpani he added to the Third are fully in keeping with the composer’s intent. The lonely flute heard prominently in the middle of the second movement was a favorite Shostakovichian sound and the bassoon at the end of the fourth movement echoes a similar bassoon solo from the Ninth Symphony, heard just one year before. Sadly, political machinations in 1948 would cause much of Shostakovich’s music to be pulled from circulation.

Marc Geelhoed ©2010

Toggle open/close

Antonín Dvořák

Piano Quintet No. 2 in A

Jeremy Denk, piano
Maureen Nelson, violin
Daria Adams, violin
Maiya Papach, viola
Julie Albers, cello

Dvořák might have been stuck forever in Prague, underpaid and unknown to the world, had it not been for an intervention on his behalf by Brahms, who set Dvořák up with his publisher in 1877. A decade later, the Czech composer was an international star, beloved for such works as the Slavonic Dances that embraced the folk traditions of his homeland.

Throughout his career, Dvořák followed the example of Brahms and grappled with the old, established forms of chamber music, a tradition that extended back through Schumann and Mendelssohn to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. As a violist himself, Dvořák proved to be especially well-attuned to the genre, whether writing for string quartet (a format that long flummoxed Brahms) or an ensemble such as the piano quintet, combining piano and string quartet.

Dvořák wrote his first Piano Quintet in A Major in 1872, but he withdrew it after the premiere. He started to revise that score in 1887, and then he decided to just start fresh on a new piano quintet in the same key. What resulted was one of the crowning gems of the chamber music repertoire, a work that balanced Dvořák’s intuitive feel for melody, his mastery of formal construction, and his celebration of his Czech roots.

The opening melody for cello, accompanied only by piano, sets a relaxed tone for the Second Piano Quintet in A Major, until the full ensemble steps on the cello’s last note and counters with a forceful theme in A minor. The tonal dichotomy, torn between A major and A minor, plays out throughout the first movement and sets up a larger context for the whole work. That pattern relates back to Czech folk music, a link that becomes more explicit in the second movement, which Dvorak identified as a dumka—a Slavic term, with Ukrainian origins, for a type of folk music characterized by wild mood swings, ranging freely from ecstatic to maudlin.

After two substantial movements spanning 25 minutes or more, a spirited Scherzo clears the air with music in the style of a furiant, a fast Czech dance. As in the dumka, pizzicato passages bring the ensemble closer to the plucking and strumming of folk music, like the sound of the zither that Dvořák’s father played. The finale once again straddles major and minor modes, and it marries the folksy energy of dance rhythms with the more studious aspects of Dvořák’s craft, even incorporating a proper fugue.

Aaron Grad ©2015

About This Program

Approximate length 2:00

Artistic Partner Jeremy Denk and SPCO musicians ring in 2016 with a rarely performed masterpiece by Haydn, Shostakovich’s powerful Third Quartet arranged for strings and obligato winds by Rudolph Barshai, and one of the greatest pieces of piano chamber music, Dvořák’s glorious Quintet for Piano and Strings. This program highlights the versatility of the SPCO and Denk alike, as well as the special chemistry of this partnership.