Wednesday 6 February 2013

Focus: Piano Quintet, Op. 18

For the second work in my focus series, I will be examining the Piano Quintet, Op. 18, one of Weinberg's most famous pieces.


The Quintet was written in August - October 1944, indicative of a wider period of intense creativity and the culmination of experience accrued over a short number of years. Weinberg had by this point been settled in Moscow little over a year, and the immediate success of the Quintet demonstrates how quickly he had managed to ingratiate himself into musical life in the Soviet capital. Weinberg was enjoying the rich musical life of Russia during WWII, when the beady eye of Soviet authority was more relaxed in its control of the arts, since it was chiefly concerned with the war effort. After 1945, the walls of the Soviet government would come crashing down on Weinberg. The high level of maturity displayed here had been hinted in several works previously, particularly the 3rd Quartet, Op. 14. But only in the Piano Quintet does Weinberg reach a style that can arguably be called 'his own'.

The work is cast in five movements, similar to Shostakovich's Piano Quintet of 1940, Op. 57. The character is overwhelmingly energetic yet serious, despite a cheekily-playful opening movement and a languid fourth movement. The cold mood of the work could be argued makes it less immediately accessible than Shostakovich's famous work (though I would retort that Weinberg's gift for melody really sells the Quintet). The ensemble writing is excellent throughout, with overtones that would resonate throughout much of his later output, including the piano trio, Op. 24, and many of his subsequent chamber works. 

The first performance took place in Moscow on 18th March 1945, with Emil Gilels and the Bolshoy Theatre String Quartet. One of the most remarkable recordings we have is with Weinberg himself on the piano with the Borodin Quartet - the recording featured here in the youtube links (a select list of recommended recordings will be posted in a few days).

I - Moderato con moto

For me, the opening phrase of this movement really stands out. I have to admit, this was the first Weinberg work that really caught my attention, and it was this opening phrase that grabbed me. The strings open as a unit, with a syncopated rhythm that generates so much playfulness for the rest of the movement. The piano enters in unison octaves with a cold melody and together with the strings, they meander through a progression that looks perfectly normal on paper, and yet the effect is simply mesmerising in performance.
        Just before fig. 7, the music moves to the major, setting up the major/minor opposition that proves the common thread uniting the whole work (along with that opening theme, which will be revisited later). The dotted second theme in the strings provides the voice for this major section. The writing throughout the Quintet very much treats the piano and strings as seperate units, almost as seperate protaganists in a discourse. The piano isn't treated as a soloist per se, just as an opposing voice to the strings (with the piano frequently taking the more aggressive outbursts). Following this, a move to F sharp minor for a development section at Fig. 11, combining both themes in the best classical tradition (though with a very liquid sense of tonality at some points).
        Fig. 18 is the closest to a recapitulation, indicated by the return to the F minor of the opening theme. Here, the strings take this theme while the piano plays ascending chromatic chords, adding to the mounting tension. Fig. 23 sees the return of the second theme, this time in D flat major and featured in the solo piano, with the strings responding. In fact, listening closely, the material itself remains relatively untouched (its tonality aside), but the parts swapped - the strings taking the piano's statements and vice versa. Fig. 27 marks the start of a final section that I would dub a coda - triplets in the piano ascending chromatically indicating a final climax of tension. But, to dash expectations, this energy dissipates to slow chords, before the initial tempo resumes and tiny snatches of the first theme are heard before the movement glides to a pianissimo close.

II - Andante

The meandering feel continues in this slower movement, with its syncopated theme introduced in the strings only opening. This is transformed by virtuosic writing in the piano part, which takes the theme and translates it into a hectic triplet dominated solo texture (a good demonstration of Weinberg's pianistic skills). The piano fades to sparse octaves, and the strings accompany with pizzicato lines before the piano regains energy oncemore towards fig. 39. Here the virtuosity explodes across the ensemble, with the hectic triplets even more effective in the string parts. At fig. 42 this builds to massive chords, before the strings take centre-stage again, with only a hint of the anxious triplet motif from earlier.
        By the time piano emerges, this texture has changed to a macabre cabaret at fig. 48. This is made even more cold in feeling by the 'col legno' string statements over the menacing piano at fig. 50. The strings restate the opening material in an aggressive unison just before fig. 52 - if its strings vs. piano in this quintet, the strings seem to be winning in this movement. The viola sings a final cantilena before an ambiguous B major chord closes the movement.

III. Presto

This movement is undoubtedly a Presto, but you might not necessarily judge that from the very opening. The muted strings open with several quiet flurries and long pauses  between each statement. Over this, the piano enters with long octave unison notes high above the strings. It all feels relatively static and direction-less in the opening.
     The piano at fig. 64 proves the saviour, with a staccato flurry in octaves joined with pizzicato strings (with strong ties to the striking harmonic progression in the first movement). The piano and strings then alternate aggressive exchanges of the opening theme, building in intensity. The 'cabaret' feel is revived, with piano gliss. lines accompanied by trilling strings (giving a hint of Klezmer, also). Fig. 75 ends this, with unison strings and bashing piano chords that recalls the second theme from the first movement, but with an added sense of finality here. This leads to a lilting dance section, with unusual time signature of 9/4. A brief Chopin-esque piano passage leads to a restatement of this dancing theme before the piano rejoins the strings in aggressive ascending octaves leading to a restatement of the opening material. Once again, the 'cabaret' theme resurfaces, with extra piano embellishment for good measure. The movement ends with a flurry based on that 'striking harmonic progression' from the opening.

IV. Largo

I would argue that this slow movement is the most challenging, the biggest obstacle to a new listener. Its character is stark to say the least, verging on oppressive. Nevertheless, it does provide the antidote to the vibrant energy of the previous three movements. It opens with a long line set in unison octaves across all parts with an overwhelmingly minor tonality. The violin then plays a mournful solo, above ever-painful string chords. This texture fades to bare solo lines, ever decreasing in energy. Suddenly, a burst of major in the piano. But this isn't a happy major. Its even more painful than the minor its set in, similar to Schubert. Following this, the mournful solo moves to the piano in a lengthy unaccompanied passage (reminiscent of Janacek).
      The cello takes up the mood, moving towards optimism in its solo passage at fig. 104, accompanied by cold octaves in the piano. The whole ensemble than drags itself together, endlessly tolling the 4th leap that opened the work in the first movement, with ascending piano chromaticism. Not even the promise of the relative activity can save the dreary atmosphere in this movement. Only the passion increases, with lamenting violin lines reaching ever higher in pitch and dynamic - Weinberg contrasts these with funereal chords below. Just before fig. 109, the solo piano reenters, beginning a coda-like passage towards the end of the movement. All that is left for the material now is to literally die away, with the crushing ending chord, marked 'morendo'.

V. Allegro agitato
What is there left to do, if the 'drama' of a work appears to have killed off the hero? In my own personal reading, this final movement then becomes an act of revenge in the 'story' (just a personal reading, mind).
       The energetic opening could be perhaps be foward-thinking to American minimalist music, if it weren't for the ever-aggressive piano part in the beginning. Against the Stravinsky-esque rhythmic cell, Weinberg is constantly usurping the listener's expectations. He keeps changes the beat emphasis of the semiquaver to crotchet motif accompanying it, whether it be in the piano or the strings.
    But then something even more unexpected. Fig. 118 sees a solid confirmation of the F major tonality of this final movement before the strings spring into a fiddle-like theme, strongly reminiscent of English folk tunes. For a little while, Weinberg's discourse on this is somewhat over-academic, but not for long. The piano's interruption to this theme gives a heavily syncopated counterpart, with the minor-major third inflection over-suggesting jazz music (an influence that was not approved in the USSR beforehand - again indicative of the relative freedom composers of chamber music enjoyed during the war). Before Weinberg goes too far into the direction of a suite on English themes, the 2nd violin plays a slowed version of the first theme from the opening movement above the piano's romping octave treatment of the 'jig' theme. But that hint at the opening is soon replaced with a minor treatment of the jig, increasing in aggression before a sudden return to the opening material after fig. 131.
    Fig. 136 sees an unusual combination - the sonority and textures of that opening material applied to the fiddle-like reel of the second theme. The resulting effect is somewhat disorientating, like a relentlessly happy funeral wake. This transforms into an even more disorientating unison trill texture, which gives way to a huge restatement of the opening theme from the first movement at fig. 142. This definitely sends like ending material, making the whole quintet 'cyclic' in structure.
    For a final coda, this theme moves to the 1st violin, accompanied by a grumbling piano which slowly paves the way to the quiet respite of the coda. The opening theme of the final movement is altered to be even quieter and much less menacing, dying away. The strings die away on a sweet F major chord, the piano grumbling quietly away right until the end.


I hope you enjoy the Quintet - its most certainly one of my favourite Weinberg pieces. I hope my listening notes are of some interest to some of you. A follow-up review of the best recordings of the Quintet will follow in a few days time. 

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