Harbison, John: Piano Quintet

JOHN HARBISON wrote his Piano Quintet in 1981, for Georgia O’Keefe and the Santa Fe Music Festival. It is written in five movements, which can be fairly reliably grouped into heavier outer two and lighter middle three. The first movement, ‘Overture’, is taut and promising. It is shaped roughly like an operatic overture, with a slow, lightly syncopated introduction, followed by a propulsive setting-forth of material. (“In opening my piece,” he writes, “I thought of the unfilled parts of [O’Keefe’s] canvasses, the open space, the pleasure of leaving something out.”) The brief middle movements, ‘Capriccio’, ‘Intermezzo’, and ‘Burletta’ live fairly lightly in the atmosphere set by the overture, though they seem to get a bit unnerved as they go on. The Capriccio is quite light and the Intermezzo lilting, but the Burletta moves heavily toward sarcasm (not surprisingly, given the title).

When the final movement arrives, the other movements seem in retrospect to have been disguised. The last movement exposes an essential falling line which has been in the background all along, and whose force the piece’s mood and motion cannot counter. A brief moment of birdsong or whistling lifts the work a bit just as it ends, diverting the mind finally to the outside and other memories.

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