Czech Romantic composer Antonin Dvorak [1841–1904] wrote fourteen string quartets. He also composed several very attractive works for augmented string ensembles. In this instance, his Opus 97, the quintet instrumentation is two violins, two violas and a cello. Written while Dvorak was in America, it came immediately after his wonderful String Quartet No. 12, The American, and shares that work’s prominent use of pentatonic scales in its strong melodic construction. The quintet is in four movements and quite substantial in length.
The opening is very considered and proceeds forward with superbly crafted melodies over a sombre cello background. A brief rhythmic foray creates a stronger melodic section. For me, the melodies presented here are transcendent in their beauty. Pentatonic phrases abound and the piece gathers a strong rhythmic impetus. A return to the opening theme coexists with a period of descending harmonies that are often revisited during the movement, and, throughout the work. Persistent changes into a minor tonality are extremely attractive. A stately passage simply sparkles with life before the descending harmonies temper the mood. Earlier melodic phrases are repeated, before leading into a sparse passage with gentle evocations of the principal theme that moves to a quiet termination. This brief look into Dvorak’s world is most noble, and very satisfying.
The next movement, marked allegro, is a gentle romp that gathers intensity with pentatonic melodies in abundance over a rhythmic accompaniment. Again, it is not particularly dynamic and occupies a middle ground of energy. A change comes over the work as a lone violin laments over a pizzicato background. After a time, we have a further return to a tempo, although the music could still be described as light and airy. The composer seems to be able to exercise a sense of control although there is a final flourish.
A larghetto movement follows, one that reveals Dvorak at his finest, invoking a melancholy feeling with the gentlest of melodies edging forward. A hint of the earlier descending harmonies is not developed– instead another period of transcendence unfolds. The mood finally gives way to a measured tempo and a wonderful, flowing melodic line. Now we have a return to the opening character, this time with some rhythmic development. Violins move into the high register in a delightful manner, before falling back into the sombre mood. Slowly, the composer begins to develop a new section with a fluttering of bows, leading to an unusual approach to constructing a melody. After a pause, a dynamic passage ensues, with new melodies to be found. The tempo dissipates but the melodies survive, moving through several different backgrounds. A return to the descending harmonic motif is heard twice before a series of translucent chords conclude.
The finale opens in a very positive mood, replete with hints of folk melodies and firm but measured rhythms. After a recapitulation of the first theme, the music becomes thoughtful and those descending harmonies re-occur, this time in a different context. The rhythm soon picks up again and a subtle change in harmony leads to a wonderfully cheerful passage, which includes references to some earlier motifs. With several mood swings between minor and major tonalities, the music constantly reinvents itself, and moves into a section of strong melodic chords, one of which is sustained, to complete the work.
My review copy contains the Quintet Opus 97 paired with the String Quartet No. 12 Opus 96, but is now deleted. Fortunately the Australian budget label Eloquence has issued the contents on a delightful 2-CD set, Dvorak: String Quartet, Quintets, and Sextet. This issue is available on Amazon US with fine performances, including the iconic String Quartet No. 12, at a very nice price. There are hundreds of other pairings of Opus 97 on a single CD – my suggestion would be the Keller Quartet with String Quartet No. 12, which is also especially cheap on Amazon US.
I am very fond of Dvorak’s string chamber music and intend to discuss at least a couple of his other augmented ensembles in the future.
Listenability: Essential listening for those predisposed to Dvorak’s chamber music.