Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Symphonic Minutes Op. 36 (1933) [14:58]
Variations on a Nursery Song Op. 25 (1914) [24:24]
Suite in F sharp minor Op. 19 (1908-09) [30:18]
Eldar Nebolsin (piano) (Variations)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, USA 31 October-2 November 2008 (Symphonic Minutes, Suite); 6-7 February 2009 (Variations). DDD.
NAXOS 8.572303 [69:39]

Erno von Dohnányi had the misfortune of being a twentieth-century Hungarian composer, born just a few years before Bartók and Kodály. Whereas, they absorbed Hungarian folk music and created their own national style, Dohnányi remained rooted in German Romanticism. He belongs more to the late-romantic tradition of Richard Strauss, Elgar and Rachmaninov than to twentieth-century modernism, and his music has been unjustly neglected. He may not have been the most original of composers, but his works are invariably well crafted and contain memorable tunes and no little humor. Undoubtedly his best-known composition is the Variations on a Nursery Song included on this disc.

This delightful work with its dazzling piano part should be a repertoire staple, a good substitute for the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Paganini Variations. Dohnányi begins the work famously with a mock-tragic introduction before the piano plays the simple tune Ah, vous dirai-je Maman (“Twinkle, twinkle, little star”). There follow eleven ingenious variations that recall such composers as Brahms (variation 3 near quoting his Second Piano Concerto), Saint-Saëns (variation 4), Dukas (variation 9 with its bassoons recalling the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Richard Strauss (variation 7 waltz) and Rachmaninov (variation 10) before ending the work with an uproarious fugato. Keith Anderson in his notes in the CD insert describes these ingenious variations in some detail. The pianist gets a real workout, but so does the orchestra. Eldar Nebolsin, an Uzbek pianist born in 1974, is fully up to the task on this recording. While the Buffalo Philharmonic has a few less than perfect moments - take the rather strident trumpets in the introduction - overall it accompanies well. The woodwinds in particular shine. The previous recording, with which I was most familiar, was Solti’s with the Chicago Symphony and pianist András Schiff. I remember being more impressed by the sheer virtuosity of the great orchestra than Schiff’s pianism. Here the situation is somewhat reversed, with Nebolsin outstanding but also with the orchestra as a real partner.

The other two works on the disc may be less familiar, but are no less attractive. The first work on the disc, the oddly titled Symphonic Minutes (or Szimfonikus percek) was composed some twenty five years after the Suite in F sharp minor yet does not sound any more modern than the earlier works. It is also a suite of five movements that are beautifully orchestrated and very memorable. The first movement, a rather Mendelssohnian Capriccio, is followed by a Rhapsodia, a slow movement, which along with the fourth movement Theme and Variations is introduced by an elegant English horn solo. The third movement Scherzo provides a nice contrast to the two slow movements. The second and fourth movements, though, provide the real meat in this work. The fourth movement Theme and Variations is especially lovely. The haunting English horn solo returns at the end of the movement accompanied by the celesta. The finale is a whirlwind Rondo that ends the work in high spirits. Like the Variations on a Nursery Song, the Symphonic Minutes should receive more exposure on concert programs. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic do the music proud.

The last work on the disc is the earliest and the longest of the three. It is basically in four movements, with the first movement an Andante with six variations. It is rather Brahmsian, but also brings Elgar’s Enigma Variations to mind. Again the themes are memorable and the work as a whole deserves greater exposure. Following the variations are a Scherzo, perhaps more Tchaikovskian than Mendelssohnian, and then a haunting Romanza with oboe, cello, and English horn solos. As in the Symphonic Minutes, the Suite concludes with a brilliant Rondo that takes on a Spanish flavor with the introduction of castanets before it ends. This performance does the work full justice. The recorded sound for all three works is first rate.

If you don’t know Dohnányi’s music, this would be as good a place as any to start. The music is delightful throughout and the performances are fine. Keith Anderson’s notes provide plenty of detail to enlighten even those who think they know and appreciate Dohnányi. Furthermore, this all comes at budget price.

Leslie Wright

This disc provides an excellent introduction to Dohnányi’s music