Vivaldi                       Mandolin Concerto in D major, RV 93
Dvořák                      Terzetto, Op. 74
Spohr                         Double Quartet in D minor, Op. 65


Elgar                           Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84

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Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Lute Concerto in D Major, RV93 (arr. mandolin) (c.a. 1730)


Had the great Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi not been employed at the city’s Ospedale della Pietà, an institution for orphaned and abandoned girls known for its outstanding musical education, who knows whether he’d have been inspired to create such a richness of works, which included over 500 concertos, some 200 of them for his own instrument, the violin. Yet other instruments feature far more rarely: the mandolin, for instance, for which there is just one solo concerto and a double concerto. So it’s not surprising that mandolin players should be on the lookout for other suitable concertos to beg, borrow or steal. This D major Concerto for lute is a natural fit, transferring relatively simply from one plucked string instrument to another.

As was invariably the case, Vivaldi expects much of his soloist. The first movement has a thrilling energy, its opening theme consisting of three contrasting ideas – a confident martial one, forte, and then a quieter response in the minor, and then a fizzing return to the major. After being presented by the ensemble, this is then taken up by the soloist. Vivaldi proceeds to build the entire movement from these ideas and the effect is one of virtuoso interplay between soloist and ensemble.

The slow movement is pure poetry, the accompanying strings given long held lines against which the lute or mandolin plucks a dreamy dotted melody, the harmonies giving an aching nostalgia to it; there’s a particularly beautiful moment in the second part when the music turns briefly into the minor.

After this the finale bursts in with great élan, infectious in its driving rhythms and formed melodically from the simplest of melodic motifs. With its sense of ebullience it could be by no-one but Vivaldi and he demands the nimblest of fingers from all the players.


Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Terzetto in C major for two violins and viola, Op. 74 (1887)

Introduzione: Allegro ma non troppo
Scherzo: Vivace – Trio: Poco meno mosso
Tema con variazioni: Poco adagio – Molto allegro

The great Czech Romantic composer Antonín Dvořák might be best known for works such as the ‘New World’ Symphony, Cello Concerto and his opera Rusalka, with its serenely beautiful ‘Song to the Moon’, but he was adept in many other genres as well, particularly chamber music. One of the rarer examples of the latter is his Terzetto and that it isn’t better known is not down to its quality, but rather, its unorthodox scoring.

So what prompted him to write this four-movement piece for two violins and viola? He completed it in a mere week, and his experience as a violist in the Provincial Theatre Orchestra surely inform the mastery with which he writes the viola part – ensuring that we don’t miss the presence of a cello. Playing in that same orchestra was a violinist named Jan Pelikán, who became a friend. He also became the teacher of one of the tenants in Dvořák’s house, a young chemistry student by the name of Josef Kruis. It was apparently these lessons that inspired the Terzetto, though by all accounts Dvořák overestimated Kruis’s talents, for the writing was beyond him.

The opening movement is dominated by a single idea that is full of lyrical charm, contrast coming from passages of semiquaver agitation. This movement leads straight into a song-like Larghetto with a lilting 6/8 time signature. Its gentle beauty is only briefly disturbed by a section dominated by a dotted rhythm, but this passes by rapidly, and calm is restored with a return to the opening idea.

Though the third movement is described as a Scherzo, it is in fact one of Dvořák’s favourite dance forms, a fiery Furiant, which is full of clever textural effects, not least the pizzicato chords (initially in the first violin part) set against the theme in the other two instruments, then swapped around, the pizzicato now in the second violin, with the first violin picking up the bow and an arpeggiated viola line. The Trio section offers a moment of mild-mannered respite, before the furiant returns. It is in the finale, however, that Dvořák’s ability to make three instruments sound, at times, like a string orchestra, is most remarkable. It takes the form of a theme and variations, with a stately opening, full of dotted rhythms and double stopping. Keywise, too, it veers between major and minor, to unsettling effect. With a change of speed to Molto allegro comes a dotted variation with slaloming energy, then a Moderato in which the first violin takes flight against urgent tremolos in the other two instruments – a remarkable colouristic effect. The Moderato e risoluto that follows sees the three instruments sharing a dotted motif among themselves. And then a final switch of tempo: Molto allegro, which brings the work to an uproarious ending.


Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
Double Quartet in D minor, Op. 65 (1823)

Scherzo: Vivace
Allegretto molto

History is littered with figures who were hugely important and innovative in their own time and whose influence echoed on down the ages, yet who are relatively undervalued today. If a music enthusiast in the first part of the 19th century was asked to name his Top 10 composers, the name of Louis Spohr might well have been on that list. He was a prodigiously gifted man in many different areas – born into a musical family he was a first-rate composer, a virtuoso violinist, Kapellmeister, conductor and a teacher of lasting influence. He naturally wrote for his own instrument, composing no fewer than 18 violin concertos, as well as the four clarinet concertos for which he is arguably best remembered today.

He lived through a time of tremendous musical change and he loved to innovate. Chamber music formed a vital strand of his output, and he contributed 36 string quartets to the canon yet more interesting still are his four double quartets, a genre he arguably invented. Spohr said the idea for such a genre came from a friend of his, Andreas Romberg, fellow violinist and composer. He relished the richness of texture with eight players and the possibilities of contrast and interplay between the two quartets. These were qualities that he developed through the four double quartets and in fact No. 1 gives relative prominence to the first quartet, and the first violinist in particular.

The piece opens in a mood of high drama, one that emphasises the minor quality of the key. And it’s that opening phrase, and its tumult, that conjures much of what happens in the rest of the movement: even when Spohr uses a major version of the theme for his second subject, it still has an innate restlessness to it. There is a Beethovenian economy of means in the way Spohr develops his material, often with unexpected turns of harmony and always fascinating contrapuntally. There are plenty of opportunities for the first violin to soar above the other players too – no wonder Jascha Heifetz was a champion of the piece. After a return of the opening, now in octaves, the sign-off, now in the major, is unexpectedly graceful.

The Scherzo has the energy of Mendelssohn but with a gritty playfulness that comes more from Beethoven. Again, Spohr uses his material with economy and the tripping trio, with its gentle hunt-like rhythm, offers a charming contrast. The Larghetto is more of a brief interlude than a slow movement per se, its main idea a gently sighing one, which Spohr casts into a warm conversation between the players.

The finale, in D major, bears the slightly counter-intuitive marking of Allegretto molto and is set in motion by the cello of the first quartet, high up, who is then joined by the same quartet’s viola. It’s a movement of sparkling charm and vivacity, Spohr exploiting the possibilities of his eight players to fine effect. And, as with the previous movements, the opening idea (here a descending scale pattern) is used to power most of what follows. At one point the second quartet offers a throbbing background while the members of the first quartet play around with the motif, and the music grows into a climactic ending, crescendo-ing right up to the final chords, fortissimo, ending the piece with an energetic flourish.  


Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84 (1918)

Moderato – Allegro
Andante – Allegro

By the time Edward Elgar came to write his Piano Quintet in A minor, he had risen from relatively humble circumstances and overcome his naturally depressive temperament to become one of the Britain’s greatest and most beloved composers, with works such as the ‘Enigma’ Variations, two symphonies, the Violin Concerto and oratorios such as The Dream of Gerontius.

In order to escape the chaos of the First World War, Elgar and his wife retreated to a remote country cottage in Sussex, south-east England, where he composed several chamber works, including this quintet (and where he would later write his last masterpiece, the Cello Concerto). Where would the piano quintet have been without Brahms’s mighty F minor work? Certainly, the piano writing is at times Brahmsian in its virtuoso richness. But that’s only part of the story. Listening ‘blind’, would you guess from the opening that this was by Elgar? That uneasy initial motif keeps coming back to disrupt the more lyrical writing – not least when it gruffly reappears in the piano at the close of the Allegro.

The Adagio, on the other hand, could only be by Elgar: no-one else does resignation quite as poetically. But there is turbulence ahead, with an unsettled inner section that makes the hymn-like melody’s return, now decorated with gentle tracery, all the more telling.

The finale begins with that sighing passage from the first movement: what a consummate master of subtle structuring this man was. This leads to an Allegro which switches to the Major, as if finally trying to overcome earlier doubts with a kind of gung-ho sureness and full, Brahmsian textures. Yet this doesn’t last: doubts creep in and the music becomes more and more withdrawn, as reminiscences of the very opening, with its stuttering rhythm, steal back in. Elgar proceeds to recollect a sequence of earlier fragments, any sense of assuredness now undermined. The theme that launched the finale’s Allegro then tiptoes back in, gradually sweeping away the shadows and finally proving triumphantly assertive.

Programme note by Harriet Smith

Harriet Smith is a writer, editor, and broadcaster. After studies in music and piano at Cambridge University, she worked as deputy editor of Gramophone magazine, editor of BBC Music Magazine and founder-editor of International Piano Quarterly and International Record Review. She is now based in an idyllic spot on the east Kent coast and when not at her desk can be found attempting to tame her garden and taking bracing seaside walks with Freya the dog.


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