Linda Shaver-Gleason, Ph.D. Musicologist, Writer, Program Annotator, Teacher

Program Notes

Descriptive Approach

These program notes were written for the Schubert Club's 2013-2014 season. It begins with some historical background on Dmitry Shostakovich's piano quintet, but it soon delves into a description of the music. The detailed description guides the listener through significant moments of the complex work.

Dmitry Shostakovich subtly refers to the Baroque era throughout his Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57. Shostakovich composed this work in the summer of 1940, intending it for the Beethoven Quartet, who premiered almost all of his string quartets, with himself on piano. The quintet was a huge success at its premiere in Moscow that November; it won the Stalin Prize the following year. The first nod to the Baroque occurs at the opening of the Prelude; after a large, G minor chord, the piano works through Bach-like figuration. The strings' forceful entrance is particularly striking due to the cello having the highest part rather than serving its usual role as the foundation. After the strings make their impassioned pleas, the piano and viola engage in a duet. The first violin takes over for the viola, making the duet bright and lilting. The ponderous mood of the opening returns, this time with all five instruments filling out the figuration. The Fugue follows without pause, with the first violin presenting the hesitant fugue subject. Once the second violin enters, the true nature of the halting subject is revealed as the pauses allow the lines to interlock. The cello and the viola enter in turn, weaving their lines into the intricate pattern, but when the piano enters, it dismantles the subject, dissolving it into its component parts, allowing a tiny three-note fragment to determine the course of the movement. The use of a fugue is another Baroque reference, but Shostakovich departs from ancient conventions to create a more modern, saturated sound. Nevertheless, he still makes use of some traditional fugal techniques such as stretto, when instances of the subject overlap, as they do in the two violins toward the end of the movement. The fugue ends as quietly as it began, with the piano finally offering resolution to that three-note fragment.

The strings strike up a boisterous accompaniment in the Scherzo, providing a vibrant backdrop for the piano's simple melody. The scherzo takes the form of a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance that was an ancestor to the waltz; indeed, the strings toss off some waltz-like flinging gestures. As is typical for a scherzo, this movement features a contrasting middle passage, marked with pizzicato strings and some chromatic turns from the piano. This passage evokes the Flamenco, with strutting from the first violin, then the viola, and then the piano. When the Ländler returns, the roles are briefly reassigned as the violins and cello get the melody until the piano reasserts its claim. The Intermezzo contains one last Baroque nod as the cello plucks out a walking bass line under a lyrical first violin melody. The viola joins the violin in close parallel motion, like an intimate dance. The piano takes over and maintains the plodding pace; by taking over the walking bass line, the piano frees the cello to join the other strings to build to a fervent climax. The intermezzo leads without pause into the Finale, which begins with a bugle-like call in the piano. This movement is lighter and freer than anything in the previous movements; as is typical for Shostakovich, this mood proves ironic, given the militaristic rhythms. Despite a few dramatic moments that call to mind events from previous movements, the quintet ends cheerfully.

©2013 Linda Shaver-Gleason

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