Wu Han Live II
Features extraordinary performances of piano quintets by Dohnányi and Tanayev that highlight Wu Han's consummate artistry, as well as the craftsmanship of these great composers.
Piano Quintet no. 1 in c minor, op. 1
Piano Quintet in g minor, op. 30
Wu Han (piano), Sean Lee (violin), Arnaud Sussmann (violin), Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Nicolas Dautricourt (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), David Finckel (cello)
Notes on the Music:
(Born July 27, 1877, Pozsony [now Bratislava]; died February 9, 1960, New York City)
Excepting perhaps Franz Liszt, Ernő Dohnányi must be regarded as the most versatile musician to come from Hungary. He was, in addition to being a great composer, one of history’s greatest pianists; he achieved particular notoriety for performing Beethoven’s complete piano music in one season and undertaking all twenty-seven of Mozart’s piano concerti in another. Dohnányi was moreover a supremely gifted conductor and an influential teacher and administrator, as well, playing a crucial role in building Hungary’s musical culture in the first half of the twentieth century.
Dohnányi received his formal musical training at the Budapest Academy of Music, where he would later briefly serve as Director. At the time of his enrollment, he was the first Hungarian musician of his level to choose to study at the Budapest Academy; his childhood friend Béla Bartók followed suit, beginning a lifelong trope of Dohnányi leading the way forward for Hungarian musical culture by his example. Some years later, starting in 1915, Dohnányi took it upon himself to raise Hungary’s collective musical sophistication: he independently presented hundreds of concerts, selecting programs that aspired to a higher artistic standard than Hungarian audiences were accustomed to—and, between 1919 and 1921, when guest artists were unavailable, Dohnányi himself performed some 120 concerts a year in Budapest alone. Bartók credited Dohnányi with providing his country’s entire musical life during these years.
But unlike Bartók and Kodály, Dohnányi didn’t mine Hungarian folk music for his compositional vocabulary—which has likely complicated his place in history somewhat, in that he was the chief architect of Hungary’s musical landscape but has inevitably been overshadowed in this respect by those composers who more literally gave Hungary its musical voice. Dohnányi’s music instead celebrates the Romantic legacy of Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann; his Piano Quintet in c minor, op. 1, can be heard as a descendant of the quintets of Schumann, Brahms, and Dvořák, which essentially defined the genre.
Piano Quintet no. 1 in c minor, op. 1 (1895)
Dohnányi composed his Opus 1 Piano Quintet in 1895, at the age of eighteen. The work caught the attention of Brahms—at the time, Western Europe’s most distinguished musical figure. Brahms’s remark that “I couldn’t have written it better myself,” coming from the author of one of the repertoire’s seminal piano quintets, was no faint praise. Brahms arranged for a performance of Dohnányi’s quintet in Vienna, the first of a series of professional triumphs that would solidify Dohnányi’s reputation as the finest composer and pianist to come from Hungary since Liszt.
The quintet’s Allegro first movement begins with a tempestuous first theme, driven by the piano with dense chords above turbulent triplets in the deep bass register. This is music that audibly comes from the Romantic tradition of Brahms; the moody key of c minor, famously the key of Mozart and Beethoven’s darkest and stormiest nights, is likewise well suited to this music’s Sturm-und-Drang character. The steadily brewing storm quickly erupts into a fortissimo tutti statement of the theme. The cello leads the ensemble into more lyrical territory, but it is still haunted by the specter of the opening melody. The second theme, in E-flat major, offers a comforting foil. At the end of the exposition, the warmth of E-flat major overcomes, at least temporarily, the first theme, transforming it into a wholly new idea. Following a thorough development section, the movement’s transition into the recapitulation offers one of the quintet’s most startlingly powerful moments.
The ephemeral second movement scherzo hints at Dohnányi’s Central European heritage: its rhythmic profile comes from the furiant, a Bohemian folk dance encountered frequently in the music of Dvořák. But its rhythmic vigor notwithstanding, this music bears little resemblance to folk music. Its prevailing character is full-voiced Sturm und Drang that continues to evoke the music of Brahms.
The viola introduces the poignant theme of the quintet’s slow movement, a melody marked by surprising leaps and harmonic turns and yet as immediately gripping as it is unexpected.
Following the searingly beautiful third movement, the piece’s rondo finale nods more explicitly to Dohnányi’s heritage. The movement begins with a Magyar-inspired theme in 5/4 time. The rondo’s episodes are particularly imaginative, ranging from music of sweeping lyricism to a Bachian fugue, whose subject reimagines the main theme of the Allegro first movement.
(Born November 13/25, 1856, Vladimir-na-Klyaz’me; died June 6/19, 1915, Dyud’kovo, near Moscow)
The development of Russian music’s classical tradition was catalyzed, in the nineteenth century, by the dialectic between nationalist autodidacticism and Western-influenced professionalization. In the former camp, Glinka, Russian classical music’s progenitor, prepared the way for the composers collectively known as “the Five,” who set out to create a distinctly Russian musical language. Opposite these were the Rubinstein brothers—Nikolai and Anton, founders of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, respectively—whose quest to elevate Russian music to elite professional standards entailed embracing the German Classical-Romantic tradition.
Sergei Taneyev, in the last quarter of the century, emerged as the exemplar of the academic camp. In 1875, Taneyev became the first to graduate from the Moscow Conservatory with a gold medal in both performance and composition. Three years later, he was appointed to Tchaikovsky’s faculty position, upon the latter composer’s resignation. In 1881, upon the death of Nikolai Rubinstein, Taneyev took over Rubinstein’s piano class. From 1885 to 1889, Taneyev served as the conservatory’s Director. His students included Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and others.
Taneyev’s chamber output includes six string quartets, two string quintets, and the grand Piano Quintet in g minor, op. 30, among other works. The rigorous approach to form, impeccable counterpoint, exhaustive investigation of thematic developmental possibilities, and attention to detail found in these works call to mind the uncompromising craftsmanship of Brahms. Taneyev has more than once been referred to as “the Russian Brahms.” Musicologist David Brown has credited Taneyev with “a compositional skill unsurpassed by any Russian composer of his period.”
Piano Quintet in g minor, op. 30 (1910–1911)
The Piano Quintet’s mighty first movement begins with a slow introduction. An ominous figure in the piano, stated in stark pianissimo octaves, snakes downward to the bottom of the instrument’s range. The strings respond in kind, but with a lush, full-blooded texture to foil the piano’s wan opening statement. This music builds with exquisite slowness; each gesture points organically towards the next (resembling, indeed, Brahms’s technique of developing variation).
The piano presents the theme at the exposition proper, derived from the Introduzione but now transformed into a forceful fortissimo statement. After a sudden silence and a series of tentative chords, Taneyev introduces the tender second theme, driven by opulent piano writing and highlighted by equally luxurious string textures. A vigorous surge of orchestral brawn hurtles the music into the development section. Here, Taneyev’s gift of invention, deft counterpoint, and ear for instrumental color are on full display.
As a balm following the no-holds-barred first movement, Taneyev writes a fleet scherzo. At the outset, the strings play ricochet à la pointe—bouncing the tip of the bow—to create a chipper march. This music’s transparent texture contrasts the first movement’s pseudo-orchestral dimensions. The scherzo subsequently contains much textural contrast, but even at its heartiest, the music remains light on its feet. The trio section, marked Moderato teneramente, is rich with heartwarming melody. The scherzo’s Prestissimo coda includes two notable features: a two-measure parenthetical reference to the tender trio section, ephemeral but devastating, and, just before the movement’s conclusion, the artful insertion of a descending scalar motif in the left hand of the piano—which, reimagined fortissimo, largamente, becomes the foundation of the expertly wrought Largo, a stately passacaglia.
The quintet’s macho Allegro vivace finale starts with a frenzy and never quite gets settled. Instead, Taneyev conjures a swirling, Sturm-und-Drang maelstrom with relish. The movement’s unrelenting energy owes in large part to Taneyev’s take-no-prisoners piano writing. The attentive ear will catch an allusion to the quintet’s opening, leading to a triumphant maestoso passage. This soon dissolves into a new romantic musical idea that builds to a transcendent climax. But Taneyev saves his amplest firepower for the work’s fortississimo conclusion. At the work’s victorious denouement, Taneyev marks the piano Quasi campane (like bells), emphasizing the resounding joy with which the quintet reaches its final measure.