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Alberic Magnard: Quintet In D Minor For Woodwind And Piano Opus 8. Piano Trio In F Minor Opus 18.
The Quintet opens Magnard's chamber music output in an unusually late and almost indirect manner. He tackled no other musical genre as late as this one, and when he finally took the plunge, having already two Symphonies and an Opera to his credit, it was with a slightly marginal combination, half-way from the chamber orchestra, and still avoiding any stringed instruments, although these are by nature the privileged, if not quite exclusive partners in this type of music. Besides, no prestigious or intimidating example rose before him with a combination traditionally reserved to more lightweight works, almost abandoned, moreover, since Beethoven's time. The following chamber music piece, the magnificent Violin Sonata, only came eight years later!
The Quintet in D minor for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano composed in 1894, was premiered in Brussels at one of the concerts of la Libre Esthetique, 3 April 1895. With its rare instrumental combination, (Quintets for Winds and Piano more often include a horn than a flute) it fascinates by its youthful energy. The first movement, Sombre (Dark) starts wildly with an energetic theme presented by the winds in unison, unfolding its spacious curve, with its characteristic minor alteration of the second degree (and that 'prhygian' nuance marks its rather more touchy than really sombre mood) on the restless swell of the piano's arpeggios. After a transition made up of dotted rhythms, this rather short exposition (provided with a repeat sign) ends unexpectedly in D-flat major, at the outcome of a second theme sung by the clarinet. Modulating enharmonically, the development rapidly reaches f-sharp minor, a key in which the winds play a fugal exposition on a subject deriving from the opening theme, which then more freely develops into a passionate mood. The second theme is then worked upon, in a spirit of greater intimacy and relaxation. But then comes a broad and powerful crescendo, reaching a level of orchestral intensity. After a pause comes the recapitulation, varied in its detail, more contrapuntal, followed by a large, serene and peaceful coda, as Magnard likes them and concluding this first movement in the luminous major mode. The slow movement, Tendre, in the relative F major, is simpler, and perhaps more unusual. It is a triptych, whose first part, introduced by a kind of chorale on the solo piano, proceeds by adding the clarinet only, in a lengthy, sinuous and expressive song. The beat alters from 3/4 to 4/4 for the central episode, and the mood changes totally, to a kind of free recitativo, reserved only for the piano, and briefly rising into outbursts of a Vif and rythme. It is only during the third part, which is a varied and amplified recapitulation of the first, that all the instruments are at last brought in. The movement ends on the opening chorale.
The third movement, Leger (Light) takes us into B flat major, for what is no doubt the spiciest and most seductive moment in this Quintet. To begin with, the flute, for the first time in the foreground, pours out a fresh melody in a rustic and sensuous mood. But, in the guise of a Trio, there comes an extraordinary oboe solo (in 2/4 against the piano's detached 6/8), strangely "arab", in b minor, (but with augmented fourths) and carrying the indication nasillard et trainant (nasal and drawling). At the end of the Leger's recapitulation, its obsessive memory will come to haunt us again for a few bars.
The Finale, entitled Joyeux (Joyful) is the longest and most complex of the four movements, inserting an almost excessively rich material in the fairly loose frame-work of a rondo-sonata. The predominating refrain-group, opposes two contrasting elements : a vigorous mountain "clogging" with a fast jig's energetic dotted rhythms, to a more lyrical melody first given to the bassoon. These two complementary ideas are developed a first time before the arrival of a second group ; with its longer note values, and with its harsh fifths, fourths and sevenths, giving it a typically "Magnardian" rustic fragrance. The final development of this movement brings back the two themes from the slow movement, whose central recitativo is even taken up again in all its breadth with the participation of the solo bassoon, which had not been prominently featured so far. The work's opening theme also plays its part in the summing-up, and the Quintet ends in the vigorous spurt of a victoriously if belatedly reached D major.
Only the Hymne a Venus for orchestra separates the masterly String Quartet from the Piano Trio in f minor, Opus 18, written between (he summer of 1904 (at the time Magnard was settling into his country house in Baron) and March 1905. The premiere took place at the Concerts Parent on 19 January 1906. Always self-critical, Magnard found the first movement too short, and the last too long, which was not strictly untrue. On the other hand, he stood up for the Finale's slow Prelude, because of its originality.
The Trio appears less boldly innovative than the Quartet, more dependant on the aesthetics of (he day, but this judgement is not intended to belittle its quality, and no doubt is linked to the choice of a combination less "intemporal" and less abstract than the string Quartet's. Its expression is also more subjective, even more openly dramatic. The Trio's tonal scheme indicates that it has been conceived as a whole, and it is proper, as it is with the Fourth Symphony, to play the movements with hardly a break. The slow movement begins in D-flat major, a neighbouring key to the opening f-minor, but ends in the enharmonic c-sharp minor, to which the Scherzo's E-major logically succeeds. Taking off in b-minor, the Finale passes by c-minor before reaching the f-minor, then major tonic. Called Sombre, similarity to the Quartet's first movement, very terse even if the repeat is played, the opening movement sums up (he extreme fundamental opposition inherent to the sonata-form. A first, angry, vehement theme sung on the 'cello over the piano's swell of triplets, is succeeded by a much more relaxed second idea in the relative major called Clair (Luminous). The short modulating development first elaborates the latter before returning to the previous idea, which gets the final word after a classical recapitulation, during a hammered and headstrong coda. This short, abrupt piece recalls the first movement of Beethoven's Eleventh Quartet fin the same key !) which may have unconsciously served as model...
The far more developed slow movement, Chantant, (Songful) freely alternates two contrasting ideas according to a scheme pertaining simultaneously to the Lied and to the great variation. The first section curiously presents these two themes embedded in each other, for the second, a piano solo with dramatic dotted rhythms, inserts itself into the middle of the first's broad melody. Then comes a great amplifying variation of the first theme in an agitated 9/8. The second is then varied and developed during the course of a Dramatique episode in d minor. A short and peaceful transition on the first idea (Limpide, in D major) brings back the original key of D-flat for a new amplifying variation of this first idea, integrating the 9/8 into a 4/4. The piece ends with a coda (Calme) finally uniting the two themes.
The Scherzo, called Vif (Temps de Valse) one of Magnard's shortest and lightest, nevertheless takes up the sonata-form scheme, with a capricious and lilting first theme and with a very melodic second sung at length by the 'cello. At the end of a freely modulating development and a slightly tightened recapitulation, the Finale follows without a break, starting with an important slow introduction in the guise of a dramatic recitativo. First on the violin, the recitativo is suddenly interrupted by three bars of Vif hinting at the future main theme of this Finale, and is then resumed on the 'cello. Now comes a new intervention of the Vif, which remains master of the field, and which, pianissimo starts, a fugue exposition in c-minor. Only after does the real main theme (near enough the fugue's subject to eventually combine with it) assert the f-minor tonic (Double plus vif) (Twice as fast). This whole section is dominated to a rare degree, even for that master rhythmician Magnard, by the all powerful rhythm. The contrast of a second melodic group comes indeed only much later (Large in E flat major) and announces a movement of exceptional dimensions. The central development is essentially taken up by an impressive double-fugue, calling upon all the resources of the genre with great mastery. But a prolonged respite, taken from the second theme, precedes the recapitulation, which reaches F-major fairly rapidly.
After a dreamlike amplification of this second theme (gentleness and contemplation seem to take more and more precedence over violence and action), the piece ends with a solemn, chorale like climax on the main theme.
-Harry Halbreich (translated by Elisabeth Buzzard)