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Howard Series
American Piano Quintet
September 22, 2012

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 Haken: Tao Suite, based on the writings of Lao Tsu, 6 th century BC, for five-string violin, cello and pianoDvorák: Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34

Allegro non troppo
Andante, un poco Adagio
Scherzo. Allegro
Finale, Poco sostenuto

Chamber music most successfully represents the creative gifts of Johannes Brahms and in turn his contributions defined the genre for the latter half of the 19th century. Spanning 40 years, from the Piano Trio, op.8 (1854) to the Clarinet Sonatas, op.120 (1894), he published some 28 full length works, many argue, the finest since Beethoven. The perfectionist that he was resulted in the destruction of numerous additional works, so only the best remain in his catalog. The Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, considered to be the crowning glory of his chamber music output, began its existence in two other renditions. In the fall of 1862, Brahms sent the score of a string quintet (string quartet plus two cellos) to his friend and advisor, violinist Joseph Joachim, who arranged rehearsals and performances of the work. This process convinced all that the string-only sound could not clearly convey the rich complexity of the composer’s musical ideas. Brahms next cast the work as a sonata for two pianos, and in that form it was published as Op. 34b. He performed it with the brilliant pianist Carl Tausig in 1894 and that version is still performed today. Upon perusal of the two-piano adaptation, Clara Schumann, the composer’s other great friend and advisor, who had loved the work even in its string quintet version, insisted that the work needed the string sonorities to effectively carry its extraordinary musical ideas. Upon further thought, aided with the inspiration of the newly developed modern grand piano, Brahms found the perfect solution. The piano quintet provided the requisite balance of richness and clarity through the contrast of the strings and the incisiveness of the piano. Joachim wrote, “The quintet is beautiful beyond words … a masterpiece of chamber music the like of which we have not seen since the year of 1828” (the date of Schubert’s death).

The four-movement piece is bursting with the harmonic and melodic opulence and rhythmic variety that we expect of the mature Brahms. The first movement with its dramatic, tragic undertones begins with a simple unison melody of piano, violin and cello, gradually intensifying throughout. The second is the least complex movement, with its swaying melody in thirds and sixths—a lyrical song without words. The Scherzo unleashes relentless, intensely rugged rhythms with crashing chords in C minor. The Trio, now moving to C major, is only a little less insistent. Following a repeat of the scherzo’s thunder the piece moves to a lyrical, mysterious introduction to the Finale. With the commencement of the Allegro non troppo the piano and cello launch a capricious folk-like march. The movement proceeds through a potpourri of dramatic and lyrical passages to its triumphant conclusion.

Rudolf Haken (1965-)
Tao Suite, based on the writings of Lao Tsu, 6th century BC, for five-string violin, cello and piano

Rudolf Haken’s brother Armin gave him a copy of the Tao te Ching for his 21st birthday in December 1986. This ancient text of Chinese philosophy is commonly translated “Classic of the Way and Virtue.” Passages concerning virtue as found through “naturalness” (ziran) and “nonaction” (wuwei) inspired Haken to compose the descriptive six-movement Tao Suite. It was originally scored for flute, cello, and harpsichord and has also been performed with clarinet, cello and piano. Tonight for the first time, the piece will be performed with five-string viola, cello, and piano.
The composer has provided the following descriptions for each movement:

"A victory in war should be observed like a funeral"
A steady, deliberate rhythm
Accompanied by a simple, plaintive melody
A final major chord - a ray of sunlight

"He who stands on tiptoe is not steady"
The viola stands on tiptoe, brags, dances, and boasts.
The cello answers with a stately theme.
The viola falls behind, as do all who boast and strive,
Sputtering a few last disjoint, aimless notes

"The five tones deafen the ear, the five colors blind the eye, the five flavors dull the taste"
A noisy pentatonic theme, overloading the senses
Working their way down to calmness and quietude

"Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea"
The three instruments are the river:
  The cello is the water
  The piano is the current
  The viola - the waves
All these give themselves to the force of the ocean
Overtaken by its vastness

"Stillness and tranquility set things in order in the universe"
Only fleeting dissonances disturb
The clarity, the calm, the simplicity

"To talk little is natural. If heaven and earth cannot make things eternal, how is it possible for man?"
Only a few seconds
A brief conversation between three instruments
Enough said

Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet in A Major, OP. 81

Allegro, manon tanto
Dumka: Andante con moto-Un pochettino piu mosso-Tempo I
Vivace (quaasi I'istesso tempo)-Tempo I
Scherzo (Furiaant), Molto vivace-poco tranquillo-Tempo I
Finale. Allegro

Growing up in rural Bohemia, Antonín Dvořák first developed his musical talent by playing the fiddle in the village band as a child. This experience enabled him to encounter folk idioms in a setting as natural as breathing. He was later sent to the town of Zlonice and then to Prague to study classical music with the German masters who at the time dominated Czech social and intellectual life. Dvořák rose from the poverty of trying to eke out a living playing the viola in the Prague theatre orchestra and dance bands when his immensely popular Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 were published. By age fifty he was gaining the recognition at home and abroad that he deserved. As a violist, the composer had always been drawn to chamber music, writing almost 40 works in various chamber combinations throughout his life. The composition of the Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81 followed the composer’s unsuccessful attempt to revise a much earlier quintet in the same key. By starting over from scratch Dvořák bestowed upon the world one of the finest chamber works for piano quintet.  The piece offers a menu of melancholy, gaiety, introspection and sheer joy while masterfully guiding the conversation between piano and strings.

The four movement journey commences with a melody of pure beauty, first on the cello, then violin, with contrasting passages in the minor mode.  A second group of themes follow like a stylized polka led by the viola. Dvořák used the title Dumka for a number of works including this second movement. Whether he had in mind the elegiac Ukrainian folk ballad or the verb “dumatic” meaning “to meditate” or “recollect,” is unclear, but this particularly lovely manifestation of Dumka points to the latter. The extensive movement alternates moods of retrospection and yearning with vigorous passages of gaiety. In a nod to Czech folk culture the composer parenthetically designates the third movement Furiant, a highly syncopated dance, but the connection seems to be more in hints of folks melodies while rhythms and character have been stylized to a quick waltz with a tranquil middle section. The Finale sports all the events of a village fête, a joyful polka alternating with serious reflective moments, contrapuntal expressions, all the while traveling to the exuberant conclusion. 


Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2012.
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