I. Allegro, ma non tanto
II. Dumka: Andante con moto
III. Scherzo (Furiant): Molto vivace
IV: Finale: Allegro
When he composed his Second Piano Quintet in 1887, Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was enjoying a growing fame across Europe, and especially in England, from where he received frequent invitations to conduct his music. (His renown would later extend across the Atlantic to the United States.) The Quintet added to his reputation: from its first performance on January 6, 1888, at a concert organized by the artists’ association Umelecká beseda in Prague’s Rudolfinum, it was a hit. Critics and composers raved, including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who noted in his diary after hearing a live performance of it that he “very much liked the quintet.” Published the following year with a dedication to university professor Bohdan Neureuther, it became—and is still today—one of the composer’s most frequently performed works.
It’s easy to see why this piece is so appealing: the Quintet has a carefree quality, though it’s concisely constructed, using clear formal structures that are creatively infused with an astonishing variety of melodies, rhythms, and distinctive Czech national colouring. In the first movement, thematic and rhythmic elements are combined and recombined, creating an interrelated web of musical material that is by turns sunny (the opening theme), melancholy, energetic, joyous, and later, anxious (second theme), reflective, and heroic. This alternation of sharply contrasting music is maintained throughout the movement. The Andante movement similarly juxtaposes music of different characters: the piano’s melancholy introduction, which becomes a refrain; the melody of the “dumka” (a kind of Slavic lament), first sung by the viola; and an easy-going second theme, presented in tender dialogue between the two violins, which the piano then takes in a more pensive direction. These themes bookend a lively dance, based on a highly rhythmic variant of the opening refrain that is passed amongst the instruments.
The third movement is a scherzo and trio in the style of a Czech “furiant” insofar as it is a rhythmic dance in triple time (it does not alternate duple and triple meters as in the traditional form). In the Scherzo, Dvořák characteristically presents several distinct ideas in succession: a joyful running motif, a broader, more sustained melody, and a simple, folk-like tune. The central Trio is a pastoral transformation of the Scherzo’s first melody. The Quintet’s finale sparkles with cheerful motifs—a cheeky questioning phrase, a lively, running main theme (introduced by the first violin), and a graceful tune of Slavonic character. Later, the main theme undergoes rigorous development, including as the subject of a striking fugato. It returns at the end, in a brilliant coda that draws the Quintet to a jubilant close.
Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
Described as a “pure chamber musician” (The Globe and Mail) creating “moments of pure magic” (Toronto Star), Canadian cellist Rachel Mercer has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across five continents.
Grand prize winner of the 2001 Vriendenkrans Competition in Amsterdam, Rachel is Principal Cello of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and Artistic Director of the “5 at the First” Chamber Music Series in Hamilton. Rachel regularly collaborates with her longtime duo partner, pianist Angela Park, and was cellist of Juno Award–winning piano quartet Ensemble Made In Canada (2008–2020), AYR Trio (2010–2020), and the Aviv Quartet (2002–2010). Rachel has given masterclasses across North America, South Africa, and in Israel and has given talks on performance, careers, and the music business. An advocate for new Canadian music, Rachel has commissioned and premiered over 25 solo and chamber works, including cello concertos by Stewart Goodyear and Kevin Lau.
She can be heard on the Naxos, Naxos Canadian Classics, Centrediscs, Analekta, Atma, Dalia Classics, and EnT-T record labels, and released a critically acclaimed album of the Bach Suites on Pipistrelle in March 2014, recorded on the 1696 Bonjour Stradivarius Cello from the Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank. Rachel plays a 17th-century cello from Northern Italy.