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8.554830 - SHOSTAKOVICH / SCHNITTKE: Piano Quintets
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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) • Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)

Piano Quintets

As the leading Soviet composers of the mid- and late twentieth century, Dmitry Shostakovich (1906- 1975) and Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) shared certain characteristics: musically, a frequent recourse to symphonic writing, with fifteen and nine symphonies respectively; socially, having to endure constant pressure from the authorities, whether the ruthless directives of Stalin, or the repressive conformism of Brezhnev. While Schnittke never studied with the older composer, his assuming of Shostakovich’s mantle was something he himself was aware of, and nowhere is the connection between the two more apparent than in the piano quintets, written at relative turning-points in their careers. For Shostakovich, this meant the consolidation of a more classical approach to large-scale form in the wake of his Fifth Symphony, for Schnittke, the arrival at a pluralist approach to composition, with the old and the new held in free and often provocative association.

Shostakovich began his Piano Quintet during the summer of 1940, completing it on 14th September. Written with himself and the Beethoven Quartet in mind, the work was first performed by them in Moscow on 23rd November. After the mixed reception accorded his Sixth Symphony the previous December, the success of the Piano Quintet was widespread and lasting. On 16th March 1941 it was awarded the Stalin Prize, and was for many years regarded more highly in the West than any of the symphonies. Shostakovich continued to perform the work until illness curtailed his concert appearances at the end of the 1950s. The five-movement form was subsequently pursued in the Eighth Symphony and Third String Quartet of 1943 and 1946 respectively.

The Prelude opens with a deliberate chord of G minor, the piano’s declamatory theme provoking an impassioned response from the strings. The piano leads off with a flowing melody over a stepwise accompaniment, with a sequence of counter-melodies on solo strings. At length, the initial tempo and expression are restored, a modified version of the initial theme invites intensive dialogue, with which the movement ends. A brief pause, and the Fugue opens with the theme on first violin. The remaining strings enter in stages, building up an elegiac web of sound, to which the piano adds a bass line. This continues unaccompanied, the strings re-entering as the dialogue intensifies, culminating in a modified recall of the work’s initial gesture. The music quietens, and the elegiac mood from the outset resumes, moving inevitably into a resigned coda. The Scherzo is launched over a chugging accompaniment, the piano conjuring up a witty theme which interacts teasingly with the strings. The first trio section has a flighty, gypsy-like air; the second involves playful pizzicato. The main theme concludes the movement in boisterous humour. The Intermezzo opens with a plaintive violin melody over a ‘walking bass’ accompaniment on cello, the remaining strings entering in bitter-sweet counterpoint. The piano continues this mood, underpinning an intensifying string commentary, and reaching a brief but heartfelt apex, before falling back into the wistful mood with which it began. Without pause, the Finale begins with a ruminative theme on the piano, taken on by the strings as the discourse picks up. Over an animated accompaniment, the piano introduces a livelier theme, the strings responding in robust accord. The mood quietens, and a reminder of the work’s impassioned beginning intercedes suddenly on strings. Yet this cannot undermine the movement’s composure, and, with a brief recall of the second theme, the work proceeds to a quiet and contented close.

Schnittke’s Piano Quintet has a protracted history. Begun in 1972, in the wake of the death of his mother, to whose memory the work was eventually dedicated, and the conflict between musical past and present of his tumultuous First Symphony, it was left in abeyance until 1975. Some of the material rejected in the interim found its way into the Requiem, whose music was used clandestinely for a Moscow production of Schiller’s Don Carlos in 1975. Shostakovich’s death on 9th August that year may have acted as a catalyst to the completion of the quintet, stylistically influenced as it is by the older composer’s last three quartets. In its haze of never-quite-literal allusions, moreover, the work was to remain the stylistic template for Schnittke’s music over the next fifteen years.

The solo piano begins the work in muted uncertainty, the opening Moderato avoiding a tangible or settled mood. Strings add their hushed tones, and a sense of claustrophobia is reinforced by the gradual increase in volume and expression, from which the piano remains detached with a stark repeated-note gesture. A hesitant idea prepares for the second movement, In tempo di Valse. What begins as a melancholic waltz, however, quickly becomes enmeshed in dense strands of dissonance, transforming itself into a dance of death. The piano re-launches the waltz motion, but again the strings collapse in on themselves, the movement petering out on a held chromatic chord. The Andante starts pensively with a descending string cluster, the piano responding with a series of gestures which fail to break the tonal deadlock. A more stable piano accompaniment and a vehement outburst from the strings arrive at what is surely an explicit allusion to the opening chord of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. The movement closes with the quiet depressing of pedals, after which the Lento intensifies the mood with a series of stark recitative-like gestures, building to the work’s emotional climax, where strings interlock in a pulsating motion over a repeated note on the piano. This dies away, and, as if from nowhere, the Moderato pastorale begins with a whimsical, musical box-like piano melody. This appears fourteen times, forming the basis for a series of string commentaries on the previous movements, before a sense of tonal stability is reached. The work concludes with a measure of repose, as the piano’s refrain fades into nothingness.

Richard Whitehouse


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