Erno DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
The Complete Solo Piano Music: Volume 1
Four Rhapsodies Op.11 (1902-1903) [29:05]
Winterreigen: Ten Bagatelles Op.13 (1905) [28:06]
Pastorale: Hungarian Christmas Song (1920) [6:33]
Three Singular Pieces, Op.44 (1951) [10:20]
Waltz: from Delibes’ Coppélia (1925) [6:23]
Martin Roscoe (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk 20-22 January 2011. DDD
HYPERION CDA67871 [80:30]
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 University.
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 to Berlin.
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 CD.
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 from Hyperion.
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.
  John France
All enthusiasts of romantic piano music will to demand to have Roscoe’s interpretation of these works.