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Ernö DOHNANYI (1877-1960)
Piano works, volume II.

Capriccio in B minor, opus 2, number 4 (1896/7) [9:12]
Winter Dances, (Ten Bagatelles), opus 13 (1905) [32:46]: I. Widmung, II Marsch der lustigen Brüder III. An Ada, IV. Freund Viktor’s Mazurka, V. Sphärenmusic, VI. Valse amiable, VII. Un Mitternacht, VIII. Tolle Gesellschaft, IX. Morgengrauen, X Postludium.
Six Piano Pieces, opus 41 (1945) [21:23]: I. Impromptu, II Scherzino, III. Canzonetta, IV. Cascades, V. Ländler VI. Cloches
Three Singular Pieces opus 44 (1951) [31:32]: I. Burletta, II. Nocturne - Cats on the Roof, III. Perpetuum Mobile
Lawrence Schubert (piano)
Recorded in the Baldwin Studio, New York City, 20-22 August, 1996. DDD
NAXOS 8.554800 [76:55]


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The career and work of Ernö Dohnanyi, who later in life Germanized his name to Ernst von Dohnanyi, is another of those sad cases in which a man of tremendous talent and ability has been overlooked because he favored a style that was out of step with his times. An unashamed and ardent romantic, his music was sneered at by the elite of his day for being out of touch and anachronistic. With Stravinsky and Schoenberg in vogue, Dohnanyi was unable to achieve the kind of fame and public admiration that his contemporary, Sergei Rachmaninov amassed. Little known outside his native Hungary during his lifetime, it is only now that his music is gaining a wider audience, and if the works represented here are any indication of his overall output, we have been missing quite a great deal over the years.

The B minor Capriccio, which opens this program, is a big-handed vigorous work. The strong influence of Johannes Brahms, Dohnanyi’s idol and mentor, is evident from the opening theme, and although one might criticize the piece for being too much of a pastiche of Brahms and Liszt, it is nonetheless exciting, tightly constructed, and possessed of memorable thematic material.

Winter Dances is a direct homage to Schumann. Originally inspired by a poem by Viktor Heindl, one need only listen to the first two or three movements to recognize the inspiration of the Davidsbundlertänze in these charming character pieces. Dohnanyi had a definite gift for melody and his harmonic language, although certainly romantic, was deft and original and frankly, quite refreshing. Of particular beauty is the Sphärenmusik, (music of the spheres) which is most evocative in its imagery lush palette of colors.

The Six Piano Pieces, opus 41, written in the composer’s sixty-eighth year, are remarkably different in character and tone from the earlier Winter Dances. Here, Dohnanyi seems to have grown far more worldly, and away from the overwhelming influence of Brahms. Clearly modelled on the work of Ravel, Debussy and their circle, these works are delightful in their variety.

Perhaps in a nose-thumbing gesture to his critics, Dohnanyi proves in the Three Singular Pieces, opus 44, that he clearly does know how to handle dissonance and angularity of rhythm. With hats off to Bartók and Prokofiev, these pieces are charmers; the delightful nocturne with the cat motif being the crème de la crème.

Lawrence Schubert, whose biography sounds a good deal more impressive than it is, is certainly not without passion or inspiration, but when the going gets tough, he is not quite up to the task. His playing is expressive, but technical passages too often seem to get the better of him and most of the athletic, bravura writing that permeates this music leaves Mr. Schubert struggling to get all the notes in place. The true secret to making music like this work is to make it seem as though any child could do it. Alas, these performances are often noticeably labored.

It is hard to tell if the sharp brittleness of tone that pervades this entire disc is the fault of a piano that is voiced too brightly, or if Mr. Schubert simply lacks subtlety in his coloristic vocabulary. Regardless of the cause, the ear tires of the sharp, harsh tone of the piano in short order, thus detracting from what is really some marvelous music.

To his credit, Lawrence Schubert makes a fine case for this repertoire through an excellent and informative set of program notes. It is obvious that he loves this music and has taken the time to make it as much a part of him as he is capable. Naxos, who have become a great deal more consistent in their production quality in the last few years, could have used some help with this one. The piano is captured in very bright light, as it were and it is difficult to enjoy it without dark glasses. I found the sound of the instrument to lack warmth most of the time, and there was insufficient bloom to the sound. Rather, the instrument seemed right in the face, demanding attention rather than inviting it.

To summarize, this is fine music and an adequate performance. Until someone along the lines of Marc-André Hamelin or Howard Shelley takes it up, it is worth the money to add this disc to your collection. Unfortunately there are enough things lacking here to make it an also-ran.

Kevin Sutton



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