Official Release: 21 January 2021
Concepts such as evolution and progress are hardly fitting when considering the history of the arts. Each period and place has its own language, which borrows from what had preceded it, paves the way for what will follow, but also rejects some elements of the past and will be partly rejected by the future. Forms and genres prized by one generation are forgotten by the following, and new styles become fashionable in place of the preceding ones. Each of them may produce – and normally does – great masterpieces, which influence in turn what will happen in the future decades.
However, under some aspects, processes similar to those of natural evolution, or to the trial-and-error scheme in science, do happen in music. Countless experiments by many gifted and less-gifted musicians demonstrate what does work and what needs perfecting. Ensembles made of bowed string instruments had always existed; yet, it took the labour of several generations to find their perfect balance in the Classical string quartet, with two violins, viola and cello. This seemingly uneven combination of instruments proved to be a flexible, transparent and intense hyper-instrument in the hands of great composers, from Haydn to Beethoven, from Schubert to the twentieth century and beyond. The string quartet displays a degree of timbral homogeneity (the means of sound production are very similar) but also a wide palette in terms of range, of texture, and also of the manifold effects that it can produce.
Under all of these viewpoints, the string quartet is strikingly similar to the piano: this instrument has a range comparable to that of the string quartet. It possesses timbral coherence but also the capability of producing very different kinds of sounds. Played by one pianist, it can produce chords or polyphony with a density comparable to that of the string quartet.
If, then, both the string quartet and the piano are among the most iconic symbols of Classical music; if they have a sufficient quantity of similar features and enough diversity; if, moreover, the combination of piano and strings sounds very well, as the two kinds of instruments compensate each other perfectly; then it would appear that Piano Quintets (i.e. works for piano and string quartet) would be overwhelmingly represented in classical literature.
Not so. The literature for piano trio, for example, is much richer than that for piano quintet. There may be several reasons for this seeming contradiction. Perhaps, the union of two perfections does not always produce a greater perfection. Perhaps, the string quartet’s balance may be broken by the intervention of a fifth instrument working in the same range. Perhaps, the quartet’s sound may be perceived as impoverished when the bowed string instruments are forced to play with equal temperament, as their cooperation with the piano imposes. Perhaps it is also a matter of practical organization: established string quartets tend to prefer working on the string quartet repertoire, and are somewhat reluctant to engage on a stable basis with a pianist.
For whatever reason, the repertoire for piano and string quartet is not as large as one might expect. And it is striking to observe that Saint-Saëns’ Piano Quintet, recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album, is one of the very first works for this ensemble written in France, and certainly the first French masterpiece.
Indeed, most of the early examples of this genre came from the Austro-German tradition. Probably, the most iconic Piano Quintet of the nineteenth century is that by Robert Schumann. Unsurprisingly, it has numerous points of contact with his Piano Concerto. In fact, this is a trait common to many Piano Quintets. The cooperation between piano and string quartet easily “degenerates” – in musical terms – into rivalry. If the string quartet had been seen by Goethe as the embodiment of a perfect society of friends talking together in peace and mutual enrichment, the arrival of the piano fatally causes the bowed strings to join forces, almost representing a miniature string orchestra, and to leave the piano to play the solitary hero. Frequently, the piano’s scoring in a Piano Quintet resembles more closely that of a Piano Concerto than that of a “real” chamber music work.
These traits are also found in the two Piano Quintets recorded here. Indeed, Camille Saint-Saëns used to play his Piano Quintet in A minor, op. 14, with accompaniment of string orchestra, thus underpinning the decidedly virtuoso style of the piano part. Moreover, in order to emphasize the orchestra conception of the strings, an optional part for double-bass was included (probably on the initiative of the publisher, rather than of the composer!) in the published version.
In spite of this, this Piano Quintet does fully qualify as “chamber music”; only, as chamber music of a decidedly virtuoso style.
As previously said, this Quintet is the first important example of this genre in French music. It had been preceded by those by Louise Farrenc and George Onslow, but their works did not achieve universal fame. It was Camille Saint-Saëns, in spite of his young age, who would be remembered as the composer of the first important Piano Quintet in France. Even though the composer was only eighteen when he first wrote it, he was by no means a beginner. He had been an astonishing child prodigy, and had begun playing the piano at two and a half, under the guidance of a great aunt, Madame Masson née Gayard. This lady lived with young Camille and his mother, and they constituted a “family” of its own after the sudden death of the child’s father. Saint-Saëns grew therefore to be very attached to his relative and piano teacher. It is therefore both unsurprising and touching that this work, one of his first masterpieces and a powerful demonstration of his skill as a composer of chamber music, would be dedicated to her.
The work was hailed by contemporaneous critics. One of them wrote: “It is singularly mature. Clearly the composer had already acquired such ease in writing that his technical skill never dulls the freshness of the work. From the beginning of the Allegro maestoso, it is evident that this a work inspired by nobility of form”.
The first movement’s chordal introduction constitutes a recurring motif throughout the movement. It is answered by the strings in a delicate tone, and it opens the way for a magnificently structured movement, with three main thematic ideas and a variety of musical contrasts. The second movement is full of enchantment and has almost a liturgical vein. It is interspersed with daring modulations, leading to distant keys and unusual harmonies. Perhaps one of the movements which impresses the listeners most, however, is the sparkling Presto, a perpetuum mobile in which the opening motif of the Quintet is also recalled. The young composer was in fact attempting the creation of a circular form, with cross-references among the movements. The Finale is somewhat surprising in its severe fugato opening; it caused another critic, Adolphe Botte, to state that Saint-Saëns was one in a handful of young musicians who wrote with a certain “gravity”. Fortunately, his prophecy that its composer would remain as unknown as he was at the time did not realize itself, and Saint-Saëns would harvest numerous successes and great acclaim throughout his long life.
If Saint-Saëns was one of the champions of pure instrumental music in a France which was almost entirely enthralled by opera, the composer of the other work in this recording came in turn from a country outside the Austro-German area. Antonin Dvořák was trained in the German tradition and clearly admired it, while drawing many elements of his musical language from it. Yet, he was also proud of his Eastern origins, and constantly attempted to find a personal and original style by joining the “German” Classical and Romantic technique with the folk music heritage of his country.
This is particularly evident in this Quintet, written in Prague in the late summer and autumn of 1887, and premiered on the following Epiphany. The composer had already written a Piano Quintet in his youthful years (op. 5), but, different from Saint-Saëns, he had become highly displeased with the work. Fifteen years after its composition, the musician revised it, but never to his full satisfaction. This, however, prompted him to compose a fully new work, which would quickly rise to the status of an icon of the repertoire.
The work is characterized by intense lyricism, as is evident from the very first statements of the cello in its opening bars. Here the “chamber music” aspect is more pronounced than in Saint-Saëns, and all instruments get their share of singing melodies, daring harmonies and complex challenges. Here too the second movement has a special role. It bears the title of Dumka, referring to a Russian-Slavic folksong with an elegiac quality. Famously, Dvořák wrote an entire Piano Trio, called Dumky, as a homage to this beautiful musical style. Here, one of the second movement’s themes is a dumka proper, but it lends its inspired character to all other elements of the piece.
Folk inspiration is found again in the brilliant and breath-taking Furiant, a Bohemian quick-step, and in the concluding Polka; in spite of these many references to the folk heritage, however, Dvořák never falls into a “postcard” style. Rather, he always manages to balance the spontaneity and immediacy of popular music with the total mastery of the form and compositional refinement characterizing his style.
Together, these two works embody contrasting souls of the genre, but also provide the listener with a unique experience displaying the full potential of this very special ensemble.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Bernardo Santos is one of the most sought-after Portuguese pianists of his generation. With performances ranging over four continents, Bernardo has played in venues such as the Casa da Música, Convento de São Francisco, Teatro Rivoli in Portugal, Sala Cecília Meireles, Amazon Theatre and Palácio das Artes in Brazil, Fairfield Halls, Royal Albert Hall and St. James Piccadilly Church in London, National Concert Hall and the Tonhalle Düsseldorf, among many others. Santos has been invited to several piano and chamber music festivals all over Europe, South America and Asia.
As an invited soloist with orchestra, Bernardo had the opportunity to play with the Minas Gerais Symphony Orchestra, Amazon Chamber Orchestra, Vidin State Philarmonic Orchestra, Orquestra Classica do Centro, Orquestra Filarmonia das Beiras, among others. He has played under the baton of conductors such as Antonio Vassalo Lourenco, Bruno Martins, Charles Gambetta, Hilo Carriel, Kira Omelchenko, Marcelo de Jesus, and Silvio Viegas. Bernardo complements his artistic career with research on famed Portuguese composers Berta Alves de Sousa and Frederico de Freitas, being responsible for the critical edition and publishing of works by both composers. His main object of research now incides on the music for piano by Portuguese composer Ruy Coelho. Bernardo gave masterclasses in several universities and music schools in Portugal, Brazil and Colombia. Bernardo Santos is an avid chamber musician, having studied with Antonio Chagas Rosa, Eugene Asti and Martino Tirimo. Bernardo collaborated with artists such as André Lacerda, David Wyn Lloyd, Diana Rodriguez Vivas, Diego Caetano, Liana Branscome, Olga Argo, Svetlana Rudenko and Belem Quartet from Brazil. Bernardo has also participated in the project “Curtas” of the composer and guitarist Israel Costa Pereira, having recorded a CD for this project.
Bernardo Santos is currently taking part of the Doctoral Programme in Music Performance (PhD) at the University of Aveiro. Bernardo graduated from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, Conservatori del Liceu in Barcelona and from the University of Aveiro (Aveiro City Prize), having studied with Deniz Gelenbe, Josep Colom, Álvaro Teixeira Lopes and Klara Dolynay. During his studies, Bernardo Santos was a Trinity College London Scholar and recipient of scholarships from Fundação GDA and Fundação Dionísio Pinheiro e Alice Cardoso Pinheiro.
Brazilian Belem Quartet was formed in 2018 by musicians from the Vale Música Belem project, its members being Fabio Santos (first violin), Renan Cardoso (second violin), Haroldo Correia (viola) and Bruno Valente (cello). This ensemble aims to carry out chamber music projects, performing an eclectic repertoire focusing not only at standard classical repertoire but also promoting the Brazilian chamber music repertoire.
The musicians of Belem Quartet had the privilege of receiving musical instruction from several international artists and collaborating with acclaimed performers in recitals all over famed Brazilian concert halls. All four members are also seasoned orchestra musicians, with Fabio Santos and Haroldo Correia being part of Orquestra Sinfónica do Theatro da Paz (associate concertmaster and principal viola, respectively), Bruno Valente being a musician of Orquestra Sinfonica Nacional – UFF (OSN-UFF) and Renan Cardoso conciliating his instrumental career with conducting studies, currently being the principal conductor of Orquestra Jovem Vale Música (OJVM) of Vale Música Belém project.
A frequent partnership with Portuguese pianist Bernardo Santos has taken Belem Quartet to play several recitals in Portugal, with some of these events being recorded by Portuguese classical radio station Antena 2.
Antonin Dvorak: (b Nelahozeves, nr Kralupy, 8 Sept 1841; d Prague, 1 May 1904). Czech composer. With Smetana, Fibich and Janáček he is regarded as one of the great nationalist Czech composers of the 19th century. Long neglected and dismissed by the German-speaking musical world as a naive Czech musician, he is now considered by both Czech and international musicologists Smetana’s true heir. He earned worldwide admiration and prestige for 19th-century Czech music with his symphonies, chamber music, oratorios, songs and, to a lesser extent, his operas.
Camille Saint-Säens: (b Paris, 9 Oct 1835; d Algiers, 16 Dec 1921). French composer, pianist, organist and writer. Like Mozart, to whom he was often compared, he was a brilliant craftsman, versatile and prolific, who contributed to every genre of French music. He was one of the leaders of the French musical renaissance of the 1870s.