Piano Quintet


piano quintet
Mixed Chamber Ensemble
pno - 2 vln.vla.vlc

Commissioned by the 2001 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts

First Performance
29.10.2001, Melbourne Festival, Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Thomas Ad├Ęs/Arditti Quartet

Score 057152012X and parts 0571572006 (fp) for sale

Programme Notes

Thomas Adès' single-movement Piano Quintet was commissioned by the Melbourne Festival for the Arditti Quartet, who gave the world premiere with Adès himself as pianist on October 29 2001.  The piece is cast in a relatively strict sonata form.  For a composer whose music has transfigured tangos, distorted dance music, and warped waltzes, this engagement with the classical tradition seems surprisingly unmediated.  Perhaps the most potent emblem of this classicism is that the work's exposition is marked to be repeated, and even includes first- and second-time bars.  And yet, as with so many of Adès' pieces, everything is not as it seems. Although the structural outline may be familiar, the design and treatment of the thematic material, and the proportions of the whole twenty-minute piece, are anything but conventional.

The themes of the Quintet are recognisably tonal, and are closely related to one another in their melodic contours.  But these simple building-blocks are the starting-points for rich and intricate processes of transformation.  The long exposition is full of subtle metrical juxtapositions, with the piano and string quartet often playing in different time-signatures simultaneously.  Yet this is not simply a pitting of various pulses against one another.  The piece superimposes conventional and unconventional time signatures, for example 3/5, 4/6, or 2/7 (divisions based on quintuplets, sextuplets, and septuplets, as opposed to crotchets and quavers).  This is a dividing of time which creates a disorienting sense that the music is continually shifting in and out of temporal focus.  In this exposition, tempo is a relative, volatile force, rather than a fixed pulse.

Time is again the issue in the later stages of the quintet.  However, instead of the localised flux and flow of the exposition, the recapitulation is concerned with a different, larger scale.  After the extremes of the central development section, the recapitulation is a gigantic accelerando which speeds up to four times the original speed, and generates enormous, seemingly unstoppable momentum.  The effect is of a dramatic and temporal compression: it is as if the whole work were squeezed into this musical black hole.  Recapitulation in the Quintet is a metaphor for transformation as well as return.  The themes may be the same, but they become actors in a new, epic drama.

So the sonata form of the Piano Quintet is neither a set of arbitrary structural props, nor a neo-classical framing device. Instead, the architecture of the piece grows out of the transformations of its material. And in re-staging the challenges of sonata form, the Piano Quintet does not just articulate a contemporary creative perspective: it represents a vivid reimagination of the musical past.

© Tom Service

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