top of page

Program Notes 

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 (1940)
Shostakovich and his relationship to Stalin's government was a story a composer who was revered on a Monday but then was "corrupting the Soviet spirit" on a Tuesday.  

The circumstances surrounding the official reception of Shostakovich's Piano Quintet demonstrates just how complex the relationship between the composer and Stalin's government had become by 1940.  The decade before began  with the ill-fated 1932 premiere of the opera Lady MacBeth.  Shostakovich was demonized in the press and it took the remainder of the decade (and the popularity of the Fifth Symphony) to quite literally save his life.  Luckily for Dmitri, he began the 1940s on Stalin's good side with not only a positive reception for his Piano Quintet but also an awarding of the inaugural "Stalin Prize" of 100,000 rubles from the government (which Shostakovich then donated to charity to help the poor population in Moscow). Indeed, when the quintet was premiered in 1940, one Russian newspaper praised it as “a portrait of our age…the rich-toned, perfect voice of the present.”

The Piano Quintet is comprised in five-movements that, at first glance, might lead one to believe that Neoclassic ideas are at the heart of the piece. While that is immediately dismissed by the tone of the first movement, what is shown are many musical features that we come to associate with Shostakovich:  a nod to Baroque convention (particularly Johann Sebastian Bach) with the interspersion of prelude and fugal textures, singing melodic ideas that illicit the feeling of melancholy Russian folk tunes,  and a rambunctious scherzo with mischievous dissonances and a character that balances the sardonic with lightness and naivety. There is also the Shostakovian hallmark attacca as with the quintet’s fourth movement, a slow, plaintive intermezzo, proceeds without pause to the gently optimistic finale: a brighter statement, in G major, bringing a palpable sense of relief.  While the Fifth Symphony ends with hammer blows the Piano Quintet finale's uses actual Russian circus music  as athematic basis and becomes grotesque, yielding later to music redolent of the second-movement fugue. But the finale quickly returns to the affable gait of its opening measures, ending the quintet on a contented note.   -Hunter Capoccioni

Taneyev: Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 30 (1911)
"The crowning glory of Taneyev's chamber works with piano, a work permeated with profound thought and inward pathos." -Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music

Tonight's other piano quintet is also in G Minor and, with the possible exception of Arensky's D Major Quintet, is arguably the greatest piano quintet in the Russian chamber music literature after Shostakovich. Taneyev is often referred to as "the Russian Brahms" due to his use of concise motivic ideas and association with contrapuntal mastery within a Romantic idiom.  What has often lead to Taneyev's relative obscurity to the wider public is the demanding technical challenges within a very ornate and intricate expression. This is particularly true in the piano part of tonight's Piano Quintet  which requires a very high-degree of instrumental mastery.  Taneyev , one of the virtuoso pianists of his age, became the first to graduate from the Moscow Conservatory with a gold medal in both performance and composition and took over Rubenstein's piano class upon his death. 

The Piano Quintet in G Minor was composed in 1910-11.  It is a colossal, monumental work.  The massive opening movement, which by itself lasts more than 20 minutes, begins with a very lengthy, pensive and slow introduction, Mesto, which while sad also gives off an air of mystery, a feeling that something is impending. The character of main part of the movement, Allegro, is by turn vigorous, resolute and lyrical, but overall the mood remains dark. The second movement, Presto, is a march-like scherzo. The sparkling percussive nature of the rhythms is very impressive. The trio section could not present a greater contrast with its slow, almost languid, lovely, lyrical melody. In the third movement, a Largo which is essentially a passacaglia with variations, Taneyev demonstrates why he was universally regarded as one of the great musical architects of all time. The main theme is a tragic tone poem which is supported by a never varying ostinato in the cello. Above it, Taneyev produces a constantly changing set of images and emotional contrasts. The huge finale, Allegro vivace, is filled with dramatic tension from its opening measures to its thrilling conclusion.

-Notes by Hunter Capoccioni with second paragraph from Edition Silvertrust. 

bottom of page