Shostakovich's Piano Quintet is a weird and emotionally opaque piece of very good music. Perhaps the year it was written (1940) and the place (Leningrad) account for some of the equivocation, but it always was--and remains--incredibly hard to pin down. It begins with some strong chords on the piano (played, in the first performances, by the composer himself) but soon meanders off in other directions. There are sublimely beautiful moments in an almost traditional melodic vein on the first violin; there are march-like rhythms in unison on all the instruments; there are occasional passages of near-silent near-despair, when one or another of the string players ventures out alone. Some of the piano notes are so tinkly and hollow as to sound like a toy piano. Often the melodies decline into bitter, grotesque imitations of themselves. Yet every moment of jarring dissonance is soon followed by something friendly and graspable, just as every quiet, slow passage is succeeded by a fast, loud one. And then the final movement, after all this disconcerting variety, brings us a chipper little Bridge Over the River Kwai-like tune that seems to assure us (but with no real reassurance whatsoever): Don't worry, ignore all that fearful stuff, everything will be JUST FINE.
As I sat in Alice Tully Hall last night listening to the Takacs Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin give us a thoughtful, lively rendering of the Quintet, I kept thinking to myself: This piece cries out for a Ratmansky dance. I wish he would hurry up and do one, so as to explain this strange, compelling music to me.