Antonín Dvořák's two works for piano quintet herald from very different stages in the composer's development. The First Quintet, Op. 5 was written in 1872 by a struggling viola player whose attempts find a unique compositional voice led towards often astounding, if underappreciated, experimentalism. Fifteen years later, an assured and distinctive style was unmistakeably present in the Second Quintet, Op. 81, penned when Dvořák and his music were already experiencing international acclaim.
Pairing these two contrasting pieces on disc proves a fascinating comparative study, through which we are adroitly guided, in this instance, by the Australian collaboration of the Goldner String Quartet and pianist Piers Lane. This partnership's previous two recordings for Hyperion – of quintets by Ernest Bloch (CDA67638) and Frank Bridge (CDA67726) – garnered much critical approbation, and they are clearly equally at ease in the great nineteenth-century repertoire, playing the mighty Second Quintet with a delectable mixture of rustic Bohemian bravura and phrasal sensitivity. These traits are facilitated throughout by astute choices of tempi. All four movements of Op. 81 exude a nimbleness of character whilst nevertheless allowing for penetrating interpretive exploration of the music's meaning. Never is there a hint of pushing the envelope or of basking in Dvořák's glorious harmonic sunlight, a fate to which lesser musicians might succumb.
The opening movement, in the hands of this ensemble, is delivered with charismatic fluency, a seamless sweeping torrent of unadulterated creation. The ensuing Dumka is exquisitely paced, bringing the composer's con moto instruction to the fore and thus allowing the movement to live and breathe its dance-like origins. Listen out in particular for Irina Morozova's heartfelt account of Dvořák's viola part. The third-movement Scherzo possesses a blissful spring in its step, offset by a pensive yet dainty central episode. Élan and elegance abound in the frantic, scheming finale, though plenty of space is given to the magical tranquillo section shortly before the end.
The balance of this recording reveals intriguing results. The quartet is very much in the foreground throughout the performance, whereas the piano often seems somewhat distant. Thus, many of Dvořák's enchanting string accompaniments are granted greater audible prominence than usual, a feature which bestows countermelody-like urgency on what might otherwise be heard (or not) as run-of-the-mill backing figures. The second-violin and cello triplets that accompany the first violin's soaring statement of the first subject in the opening Allegro, ma non tanto, for example, are afforded remarkable resonance in relation to the piano, as are the second violin's sprightly crotchets that appear alongside the 'cello's secondary theme in the Scherzo. However, given that so much of this work's joie de vivre is derived from the delightful melodic interplay between string quartet and piano, it is a shame that the latter doesn't quite equal the sonic clout of its string counterparts. Furthermore, the piano's remote, slightly muffled timbre sometimes detracts from the clarity of Piers Lane's dexterous passage playing.
Whilst Dvořák's Op. 81 now resides amongst the great monuments of the chamber music canon, it was his revision of Op. 5 earlier in 1887 that perhaps inspired him to approach the medium afresh. In fact, without the initiative of salon-owner and amateur musician Ludevit Procházka – who made a copy of the score around the time of the work's premiere – we would not have had the pleasure of experiencing this absorbing quintet, as Dvořák destroyed the manuscript soon after its first performance. The Goldners and Lane make a deeply convincing case for the continued survival of this work. The opening movement is probingly argued, with the ensemble deftly moving between the weighty, motivic first subject and the Schubertian, ecossaise-like second. Following a strikingly cantabile rendition of the central movement, the ensemble truly takes flight for the closing Allegro con brio, a brilliant, jaunty sonata-rondo in which catapults the work headlong towards its triumphant conclusion. Make no mistake – whilst the pulling power of this disc may emanate from the renowned Op. 81, the performance of Op. 5 holds equal allure.