Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57

performed by Boris Berman and the Vermeer Quartet, or below by the Borodin trio and Mimi Zweig (violin), Jerry Horner (viola)

The Gm piano quintet, one of the composer’s most enduring chamber works, comes right after the composer’s sixth symphony, between the towering, famous fifth and seventh symphonies, and was completed in 1940. It won the composer a Stalin prize, and a six-figure sum, but I’m curious to know what they saw in the work that wasn’t somehow offensive or illegal.

The piece was written for and premiered by the Beethoven quartet, with the composer at the piano. A note here on the Beethoven quartet is suitable. It was founded in the early ’20s, but it wasn’t until a decade later that they became known by that name. Starting in 1938, they had a close relationship with Shostakovich, premiering 13 of his 15 quartets (all but the first and last), and the quartet or individual performers of the quartet were the dedicatees of many of these works as well. They disbanded in 1990, after more than 50 years.

The work runs to about half an hour in performance and its five movements are as follows:

  1. Prelude: Lento
  2. Fugue: Adagio
  3. Scherzo: Allegretto
  4. Intermezzo: Lento
  5. Finale: Allegretto

A quick look at that list, especially with the prelude and fugue, and an intermezzo, gives us the impression that it might be some kind of neoclassical period piece, a traditional work, but in reality, it’s an intense piece, both musically and emotionally. It’s not just a caricature of those classical ideas, or mere interesting labels, but very human, very inspired, intense, genius music. It speaks to both the composer’s modernness and his grounding in tradition, having also composed in other standard forms, like the symphony, quartet, trio, sonata, concerto, even his own set of preludes and fugues.

And so, it is with a prelude and fugue that this quintet begins. Unlike writing for a solo instrument like the piano, we have divisions here that work to the piece’s advantage. There is the string quartet proper, with its four voices, as well as the piano as a more distinct instrument, and it is the piano who begins the prelude. The strings enter with a plaintive cry, and there follows a lighter passage where individual strings take turns in leading the music, but the overall impression for me is that the emotional and musical weight is much more than that of just a prelude; it’s not just an introduction or aperitif. It gives us motifs (some three-note figures) and builds the emotional feel for the entire work. There’s nothing insignificant about this prelude.

In contrast with the emotional intensity and the fullness of this ensemble of only five instruments, the fugue begins with a single violin, and the other strings enter one by one, all muted. It’s a fugue alright, but it also feels like a dirge. A few sources mention that G major has been hinted at here and up to this point, which eventually brings us to the B major of the central scherzo. This movement is by far the longest of the work, at about a third of the work’s overall playing time. It’s somber to say the least, and for me there’s an interesting contrast presented in the work’s form and its content. The form of the fugue is easy to follow, with the presentation of subject and countersubject, giving us the impression of development and motion, but the emotional content says otherwise. The music is pained, weary, and seems to languish, and for me, this builds a great deal of tension in the movement, one that’s hefty enough to sound almost like a slow movement from one of the composer’s symphonies.

In yet another contrast to what came before it is the central scherzo, the shortest movement of the work, and in a major key, as if completely ignoring the tragedy that preceded it. The buoyancy of the work now make the scherzo seem almost irreverent, even grating in its sudden cheerfulness. The trio is more along the lines of what we might expect in this work, with some folk-like passages, the piano adding an interesting splash of color to a trio that sounds almost symphonic in scope. There’s vivid color and texture from use of pizzicato and the piano here, a very well written little scherzo.

After these three movements, there’s no telling what follows, and now we’ve reached an intermezzo. It feels like the other side of the coin we got to see in the scherzo, the actual behind the scenes look, as the scenes sing a mournful tune to the cello’s pizzicato. Again, we have not just an interlude or a small serenade of a break, but a second slow movement, a plaintive, emotional movement of sorrow, and maybe the most memorable, heartfelt, honest passages of the entire work, that there’s no mask here, no double entendre or underlying meaning, that this is what’s meant to be said. The last remaining echoing notes of the intermezzo lead to the finale of the work.

The piano continues from the intermezzo in what appears as a nostalgic, hesitant major key. There’s a marchy heartbeat that develops in strings under the piano’s melody, and there’s that uncertain dark smile present in most of Shostakovich’s music that says there’s more to it than what we’re hearing. That march feel seems to build in places, with an uncertain triumph, but never breaks out into full unadulterated glory. There are recalls of the intermezzo, so this journey from G minor to G major is at least briefly called into question, but disappears as abruptly as it appeared. The piece returns, in its sonata form, to the G major theme of the beginning of the movement, but quietly. There’s no triumph, no surprise tragic ending, no celebration.

There’s an unsure, perhaps even skeptical journey from the G minor we heard in the opening prelude and fugue, through the almost shocking optimism and playfulness of the scherzo, the heartfelt emotion of the intermezzo, through to what is a low-key, subtle-sounding but significant major-key finish, bringing us a work full of classical tradition and form, but with a modern expressiveness, a palette with which anyone, especially the composer’s contemporary audiences, could identify.

There’s plenty to be said here for appreciating classical forms, and that they’re more than just formal convention, and of the overall atmosphere of the piece, but we can be satisfied in saying Shostakovich displays his outstanding craft as a composer in a chamber work full of emotion to explore and appreciate.

With those two chamber works behind us, we still have more than a dozen string quartets from his pen to address, and we’ll do so slowly but surely. Coming up this week, as you are surely aware, are a symphony and a concerto, so do stay tuned for those, and thank you for reading.

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