I first came across the music of Erno Dohnányi whilst still
at school. One of the fourth-formers was a fine pianist and
all-round musician - in fact, he still is! Alan had entered
a competition for scholars in the Lanarkshire area, and, cutting
a long story short he won first prize with the Rhapsody No.3
in C major. This was against fierce competition from another
pianist who presented the great A minor
Sonata by Mozart. I can still recall standing beside Alan at
the school piano whilst he played the Dohnányi. It was such
a romantic piece and it certainly made young hearts flutter
– especially when the girl of one’s dreams also joined us at
the ‘recital’. I cannot hear this overblown work without recalling
so many happy - and occasionally heart-breaking - days some
forty-odd years ago.
Erno Dohnányi has suffered at the hands of critics and politicians.
On the one hand he has been vilified by the Western avant-garde
who felt that his largely conservative, tonal music was not
contributing to their ‘cause’. He was deemed to be the epigone
of Johannes Brahms. In fact, he also suffered from a ‘whispering
campaign’ in his native Hungary by the communist authorities.
He was accused of having anti-Bolshevik tendencies and in spite
of his work with the Holocaust resistance was even accused of
being a Nazi war criminal. In the late forties he emigrated
to the Americas – firstly to Buenos Aires and then to Tallahassee,
where he was pianist and composer-in-residence at Florida State
A good definition of his musical style is that Dohnányi was
able to synthesise the classical forms of Brahms with the ‘the
Lisztian concept of motivic strands binding together a large-scale
work’. Furthermore he brought the flamboyant virtuosic style
of Liszt to many of his compositions.
A great place to begin a study of this CD is with the ‘Waltz’
from Delibes Coppélia. Like Liszt and many other romantic
composers before him, he made a number of transcriptions and
paraphrases of waltzes by Brahms, Schubert, Strauss and Delibes.
Here Dohnányi contrives to present the ‘Valse lent’ which introduces
Coppélia and then makes use of the ‘Valse de la poupée’
from the second act for the middle section. It is a well crafted
and thoroughly delightful piece. It would make a fine encore
at any recital.
Then have a listen to the Pastorale: Hungarian Christmas
Song which Dohnányi premiered in Budapest on 27 December
1920. It is a lovely work that is based on the carol Mennybol
az angyal (The Angel from Heaven). However, this
is no straightforward folksong setting for piano: it is a complete
reworking of the material in a pianistic and impressionistic
style. This is a very subtle festive spirit indeed.
The Four Rhapsodies, Op.11 composed in Vienna in 1901,
are masterpieces. It is worth quoting the composer’s words as
recorded by his third wife and biographer Ilona, that ‘this
work can be considered as a sonata in four movements ... I did
not call the work ‘sonata’, because its structure is somewhat
looser and each piece can be performed separately.’
The first Rhapsody is in G minor and is largely written in a
free sonata-allegro form. However the second theme is quite
gorgeous. It was the composer’s favourite of the set. The second
in F# minor serves as the slow movement of this ‘pseudo-sonata.’
It is an introverted piece that develops quite slowly and explores
a bleak landscape, yet is indescribably beautiful. It has been
hailed by some critics as the best of the set. I have already
mentioned the over-blown, heart-on-sleeve third Rhapsody which
serves as the ‘scherzo’ with its stunningly romantic ‘trio’
section. The Liszt-inspired final movement is once again dark-hued
with its elaboration of the Gregorian chant ‘Dies Irae’ and
includes references to the themes of the former three Rhapsodies.
So in some ways the ‘sonata’ is also ‘cyclic’.
Many critics have suggested that the Four Rhapsodies
have ‘excessive technical demands’ or ‘lacked musical content’
or were ‘devoid of emotion’. They were divided about which was
the ‘best’ of the set. However, I believe that these pieces
have stood the test of time. In spite of their ‘improvisational’
nature, these Rhapsodies do have passion and emotion. They are
perhaps nearer to Tchaikovsky’s muse than to that of Liszt;
however, they are exceedingly difficult to play, in spite of
being devoid of the empty pianistic trickery, which is found
in much of Liszt's music.
Winterreigen, Op.13 is subtitled ‘Ten Bagatelles’.
Bearing in mind Eric Blom’s brief definition of the word ‘bagatelle’
as being ‘a short piece, generally of a light or humorous character’,
it would seem to be a little self-deprecatory. However, Beethoven’s
works of the same title can hardly be dismissed as ‘trifles’.
Winterreigen, which is translated as Winter Round
Dance was composed in 1905 upon Dohnányi’s move from Vienna
The first, Widmung (Dedication) uses the opening
theme of Schumann’s Papillon as an ostinato. The Marsch
der lustigen Brüder (March of the Merry Comrades)
is dedicated to ‘Bob’ and is a short, jerky number that is harmonically
quite involved. To Ada comes next. It has been suggested
that ‘she’ may have been an old flame. Certainly the composer
repeats the melodic notes A-D-A as an ostinato. This is a sad
little piece that certainly could fit the bill of a remembered
love affair. Freund Viktor’s Mazurka (Friend Victor’s
Mazurka) is a pleasure – it is an intricate little number
that is largely tongue-in-cheek (I think). Sphärenmusik
(Music of the Spheres) has little to do with Greek
philosophy and the theorems of Pythagoras. It recalls a balloon
flight made by the composer. Once again, this is a highly chromatic
piece: an ‘ethereal tone-poem’. The Valse aimable (Friendly
Waltz) is truly lovely. It is really a little impressionistic
valse and has not been designed to be danced to. Um Mitternacht
(Around Midnight) is an eerie little piece that reminds
one of ‘sublime’ images such as owls, ghouls and graveyards.
All a bit ‘Hammer Horror-ish’. Tolle Gesellschaft (Great
Company) is impossible. I followed this in the score and
wonder how anyone can read all the notes and accidentals, never
mind play and interpret! Great stuff. Morgengrauen
(Dawn) is the antithesis of the previous piece. Reflective,
moody and unfocused, this is possibly the loveliest of these
‘bagatelles’. The final piece, Postludium is another
romantic triumph and nods to Schumann’s Fantasia in C major.
The final notes spell out A-D-E – not ADA this time but the
German for Adieu.
In Winterreigen, Schumann may be the main influence,
but the keen listener will surely hear echoes of Brahms, Chopin
and Liszt. Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner are possible influences
on some of the more complex chromatic harmonic passages.
The Three Singular Pieces were composed late in the
composer’s career whilst he was living at Tallahassee in 1951.
The first movement is a humorous Burletta which is
really a super little scherzo. The second piece is entitled
Nocturne (Cats on the Roof). Maurice Hinson
has suggested that this does sound like cats meowing at night
- especially the last few bars! The final Perpetuum mobile
is really a toccata which is both exciting and percussive. Surely
Bartók lies behind this piece? These Singular Pieces
are much more ‘contemporary’ than most of the works on this
Martin Roscoe’s playing is superb. He has already recorded the
two Dohnányi Piano Concertos for Hyperion
(not to forget Howard Shelley’s version on Chandos)
and is now pursuing the ‘complete solo piano music. Looking
at the ‘catalogue’ there are still some great pieces to ‘lay
down’ including the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of E[mma]
G[ruber] and the Humoresken. It is to be hoped
that the next release appears as soon as possible. The programme
notes are excellent and the vibrant sound recording is as expected
Even if one has the excellent Naxos edition of some of these
pieces, all enthusiasts of romantic piano music will to demand
to have Martin Roscoe’s interpretation of these works.
One final note. The young pianist who introduced me to Erno
Dohnányi also used to act as répétiteur during the school’s
annual Gilbert & Sullivan opera rehearsals. I recollect
being astounded by his ability to change over at the piano with
Mrs Gallagher, the music mistress, during the Chorus of Japanese
Gentlemen singing ‘Behold the Lord High Executioner’. Never
a beat missed. Strange what things we recall.