This piece by Antonín Dvořák… July 23rd, 2017

On Friday evening I attended one of Toronto Summer Music’s wonderful concerts at Walter Hall. The festival has embraced the Canada 150 theme, and as a delightful gimmick, this concert’s tickets were priced at $18.67. At less than twenty bucks for an evening of extraordinary music, how could one not go?

We were treated to a wonderfully eclectic program featuring Mozart’s little-performed but perfectly beautiful String Quartet No. 4 in C major; Canadian composer Milton BarnesLamentations of Jeremiah for solo viola; the world premiere of a brooding but very accessible TSM-commissioned piece called Carmine Skies by Canadian composer Jordan Pal; and (my favourite of the four), Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 performed by TSO concertmaster (and new TSM director) Jonathan Crow and a clutch of less well known but equally accomplished players.

I grew to love the Dvořák during my trip last month to Fort Worth, Texas for the finals of the Cliburn Piano Competition, where we saw it performed three times over two evenings! (Sometimes it just works out that way in competitions. Three out of the six finalists had selected it as the chamber piece they would perform as part of the final round. Two of the others performed Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, and one chose Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor. I assure you we did not get tired of it!)

The TSM’s program included some interesting notes on dumka, the term given to the second movement of this piece. Dumky (plural) were based on a form of nationalist epic poetry originating in Ukraine that Czechs embraced during their own struggles for independence, and Dvořák can take credit for putting them into musical form. From the notes: “Dvorak’s dumky share with the traditional Ukrainian duma an elegiac mood… But their melancholy usually bursts into joy expressed in highly contrasting and lively dance-like passages; these, in turn, alternate with the initial slow, plaintive music. The surprising juxtaposition nevertheless feels spontaneous, earthy and natural – perhaps the “freshness” that Brahms so admired in his colleague’s music.”

He was a generous and humble guy, Brahms. I’m always reading about how much he admired others’ music. (See my posts on Bach’s Chaconne, above.) In fact, I’ve just read that Brahms played a significant role in promoting Dvořák’s career.

The nationalistic and folkloric elements in Dvořák’s music bring to mind similar elements in Grieg’s music. My friend Michael, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and composers, tells me Dvořák and Grieg used to hang out. But that’s a whole other blog post.

This is a wonderful performance of the quintet by the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and her ensemble. One of my favourite parts comes near the very end: the lead-up starts with the first violin tiptoeing up the scale, note by note (starting at 39:30), introducing a very short, sweet melody that’s only four bars long. (I pulled out my fiddle and, despite my lack of experience, quickly figured out this little tune!)—and makes us think, that was so beautiful! Can we hear it again, please? But the strings are on to something else… then they come back just a little later, at 40:05, where the piano leads this time, tiptoeing up the scale and then playing that lovely motif on octaves high in the treble. And then it’s repeated by both violins, and with a delightful accelerando that drives through giddily to the end. It’s marvellous!




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