The piano quintet is a powerful and flexible ensemble: nearly every other standard chamber group is a subset of it. While it is most obviously a string quartet with an added piano, any one of the strings can play alone with the piano, or the first violin and cello can temporarily form a piano trio while the others sit out. Even the full quintet can give wildly different impressions depending on who is in the foreground and who is in the background: when the piano accompanies, the strings can unite in bold lines, with the viola and cello freed from bassline and inner-voice duties. And when the strings accompany, the piano becomes a soloist, almost like a concerto in miniature.
Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major takes advantage of all these possibilities, and is filled with indelible melodies and lush textures. The first movement begins with a rolling theme in the cello and piano, starting peacefully in A major but soon inflecting toward minor, heralding the entry of the rest of the strings. Like much of the Quintet, this movement is built around contrasts: major and minor, loud and soft, arches and angles, folksiness and elegance.
The second movement, called a Dumka, alternates a somnolent refrain with up-tempo verses. The Dumka is a form of Slavic folk ballad defined by the mixing of slow and fast; Dvořák adapted it as a hallmark in several of his chamber pieces. This one prominently features the viola (Dvořák was a violist).
The Scherzo is a quick dash with a more relaxed middle section. The Finale is bracing and winsome, with a coda that feels like a bittersweet farewell.
Dvořák wrote the Piano Quintet No. 2 in the late summer and fall of 1887, but it actually began as a project to revise his earlier Piano Quintet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 5, from 1872. Dvořák had destroyed that score after its premiere, but had second thoughts and reconstructed it from a friend’s copy 15 years later. Even after revisions, he was still unhappy with it, so he wrote the Quintet No. 2 in A Major, a fresh piece that has almost entirely superseded its predecessor.