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
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
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.