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Dohnányi plays Dohnányi: The Complete HMV solo piano recordings - 1929-1956
Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)

Pastorale (Hungarian Christmas Song)
Waltz (Coppélia – Leo DELIBES)
Schatzwalzer (Der Zigeunerbaron – Johann STRAUSS)
Du und Du (Die Fledermaus – Johann STRAUSS)
Six Piano Pieces Op.41
Winterreigen (Ten Bagatelles) Op.13
Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song Op.29
Pastorale (Hungarian Christmas Song)
Intermezzo in F minor (Four Piano Pieces Op.2 No.3)
Ruralia Hungarica No.6 Op.32/A
Gavotte and Musette in B flat
Pavane from the Sixteenth Century with Variations (Humoresque) Op.17 No.3
Suite nach altem Stil (Suite in the Olden Style) Op.24
Six Piano Pieces Op.41
Burletta (Three Singular Pieces) Op.44 No.1
Nocturne (Cats on the Roof) (Three Singular Pieces) Op.44 No.2
Valses Nobles D969 (Franz SCHUBERT)
Ernst von Dohnányi (piano)
Recorded in Budapest and London 1929-56
APR 7038 [2 CDs: 68.43 + 70.24]

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APR distinguished themselves with their Medtner discs, which were reviewed on this site [Vol 1, Vol 2], and they now give prominence to another composer-pianist in this commanding double set devoted to the HMV solo recordings of Dohnányi made between 1929 and 1956. Readers will doubtless have comes across his famous recordings of the Variations on a Nursery Theme and maybe too of his Mozart Piano Concerto K453. But I suspect that only pianophiles of considerable ingenuity will have heard many, if any, of these solo discs and certainly not the uncommon November 1929 Budapest disc (AN 443) which inaugurated the set.

Dohnányi was born and studied in Pressburg, the coronation city of Hungary, now Bratislava, the Slovakian capital. At seventeen he went to Budapest, studying with teachers who were variously Lisztian and Brahmsian in outlook and he was so impressive a student that he graduated early. By nineteen he had made prestigious debuts in Berlin, Vienna and London and in 1905 was appointed as head of Piano at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik though he returned to Budapest in 1915 and increasingly took on administrative and conducting positions, in addition to his piano playing and his composition.

HMV recorded a number of Hungarian musicians around the time of the session with Dohnányi. A year earlier they’d managed to get famed violin pedagogue Jenö Hubay into the studios to record principally his own compositions as indeed they’d done with Bartók. So the precedent was set. As with both Hubay and Bartók, he also made recordings for a local company as well. He expanded his discography for HMV in London in 1931, managing also to record his Nursery Variations for Columbia there, but this was the extent of his pre-War HMV recordings. They were augmented by the post-War visits of 1946 and in 1956, during the course of which he re-recorded The Six Piano Pieces that he’d set during that earlier visit.

In the light of the relative paucity of his own playing in the catalogues we may be forgiven for thinking him an occasional pianist but history does not support this partial view. He was a pianist of immense position and gifts as had been recognised from his first professional engagements. His American years, in the immediate post War period, were clouded, but he still managed to retain a degree of concert importance. He still recorded. Though they are imperfect in some ways it would be good to have a comprehensive re-release, for example, of the sonata recordings he made with Albert Spalding.

The character pieces he recorded are all graced with his tonal beauty and expressive contour. Composers can tend to be brusque with their own music but one never feels that here – indeed when he came to re-make the early Hungarian recording of Pastorale nearly thirty years later he was even more generously expressive with it than he had been in 1929. The famous Strauss arrangements, of course, are here in all their dramatic finery in these 1931 sides. In 1946 he recorded the Six Piano Pieces Op.41. These veer from the Impressionistic (the Impromptu) to the frolicsome (Scherzino) and take in glorious fast-moving cascading rivulets and a leonine power (Cloches). When he re-recorded the set in 1956 this Andante had tightened up slightly (it seems to me that he draws out the elliptical quality of it even more evocatively in 1956), but, understandably, he was no longer quite able to keep up with his own instruction for Cascades (Il più presto possible). The Ten Bagatelles (Winterreigen) derive from the 1956 sessions when the composer was seventy-nine. There is still pellucid beauty in Widmung, an exceptional sense of excavated drama in Sphärenmusik, where the linear curve and trills accompany the tied repeated notes in conveying tremendous atmospheric compression. He has the digital flexibility for Um Mitternacht, no question, and the rhythmic nuance and panache for Tolle Gesellschaft.

His beautifully calibrated Brahmsian inheritance is best appreciated in the Intermezzo in F minor, from the Four Piano Pieces Op.2 No.3 and his baroque instincts from the Pavane (and the not-very-Gavotte-like Gavotte and Musette in B flat). One has to be won over by the insistent gravity of the Sarabande from the Suite nach altem Stil (Suite in the Olden Style) and the companion Gigue – joyful and that constantly flirts with fugato, full of skitter and scudding humour.

What is especially noteworthy about this release is that the stereo tapes are being used for the first time. There was an in-tandem stereo and mono set up in the studio but no stereo recordings were made on one particularly productive day – so mono tapes have been employed. To all of these Bryan Crimp has had access and I’m particularly glad he favoured the stereo over the mono Sarabande and Menuet movements of the Op.24 Suite that, for all that Dohnányi wasn’t finger perfect, are truly winning.

As with all such comparable releases from this company we are in safe hands: comprehensive, chronological and with intelligent notes are provided. These are clearly laid out typographically, First class copies have been tracked down and transferred with skill and care,. Furthermore the restorative effect on Dohnányi’s pianistic reputation will, one hopes, be considerable.

Jonathan Woolf

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