Dohnányi in London
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No.17 in G major K453 (1784) [28:41] ¹
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody No.1 [10:38]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust; two versions (1846) [4:05 + 4:01]
Béni EGRESSY (1814-1851)
Szózat (Summons) [1:53]
Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877–1960)
Hiszekegy (I Believe) [2:45]
Ruralia Hungarica Op.32b No.5 (1924) [2:10] and No.2 [3:46] ²
Variations on a Nursery Tune Op.25 (1914) [21:38] ²
Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra/Ernst von Dohnányi (and piano¹)
London Symphony Orchestra/Ernst von Dohnányi ²
rec. 1928-31, London

This clever compilation manages to do what collectors have long wanted, which is to corral Dohnányi’s pre-war orchestral recordings in a handy and excellently engineered disc. It begins and ends with the two big works, in which the composer is executant (in his own Variations) and pianist and conductor, in Mozart’s G major concerto. I was wondering when someone would come up with a good transfer of the last, ever since the BBC unleashed its cack-handed version – so subterranean you could barely hear a thing [BBC CD757 released in 1990 and now best forgotten]. Fortunately the job has been entrusted to Mark Obert-Thorn, and I should note that his transfers on this label are not XR ones, in case there should be some confusion.

Obert-Thorn, as is his wont, maintains a fine balance between a full frequency response and the retention of some surface noise. Here, unlike that BBC disaster, we can catch the full string tone – not so many fiddles from the sound of it, and some with Hubay-derived tonal production, espousing quick portamenti and a generous sense of phrasing. We also have the added interest of hearing Dohnányi’s own very acceptable cadenzas. This is the concerto with the ‘Papageno’ finale but also, perhaps more presciently, the almost proto-Wagnerian slow movement which is played here with due gravity. This set stayed in the Columbia catalogue in the UK until 1940. Incidentally the company was flat out at the time recording a range of artists, and checking the matrix details, here are the adjacent recording undertakings – and I mean within the space of a few days - either side of this June 1928 recording; Godowsky recording Chopin Nocturnes, Stravinsky recording Petrouchka, the complete Bayreuth Tristan under Elmendorff, the Capet Quartet recording Beethoven’s Op.74, and Bruno Walter conducting the Mozart Festival Orchestra in Paris in Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Not a bad few days’ recording for the company. And the Léner Quartet, compatriots of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and Ernst von Dohnányi, were to be very much present in Columbia’s London recording studios.

The sequence of orchestral items includes the same piece played twice for different companies; the Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust. It was first recorded for Columbia and then re-recorded for HMV two days later. I’m not sure about the contractual implications for the Budapest Philharmonic but they were clearly open to offers. Both discs were released, but the Columbia was limited by a small studio, whereas the HMV was recorded in Queen’s Hall and is immeasurably better. Liszt’s First Hungarian Rhapsody is graced by excellent wind playing, and a spruce, knowing interpretation results. We also hear a performance of Egressy’s Szózat – a proud, rather ceremonial piece - and Dohnányi’s Hiszekegy, as well as two pieces from Ruralia Hungarica, one with his Budapest orchestra and the other with the LSO, a filler for their recording – Lawrence Collingwood conducting – of the Variations on a Nursery Tune. I’ve always loved this performance and despite the sound quality, preferred it to the later re-make with Boult. It’s full of fun and wit and charm. Incidentally a couple of days after recording it, the composer went into the HMV studios and recorded some solo pieces – as indeed he had back in 1929.

Full marks to restorer and label for this superior offering.

Jonathan Woolf

Full marks to restorer and label for this superior offering.