Erno DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
String Quartet no.3 in A minor, op.33 (1926) [27:50]
String Quartet no.1 in A major, op.7 (1899) [29:39]
Aviv Quartet (Sergey Ostrovsky (violin); Evgenia Epshtein (violin); Nathan Braude (viola); Rachel Mercer (cello))
rec. St Anne's Church, Toronto, 17-19 May 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572569 [57:29]

After a promising Naxos debut in 2003 performing three of Franz Hoffmeister's Quartets (review), followed up after a considerable hiatus by a disc of Erwin Schulhoff's String Quartets (review), the Aviv Quartet now turn their attention and talents to Schulhoff's contemporary, the Hungarian Erno (Ernst von) Dohnányi.
In the early 20th century Dohnányi was a big name, one third of a holy trinity of Hungarian composers, alongside the slightly younger Kodály and Bartók, but whereas the latter has flourished, and the former is slowly gaining the appreciation he merits, Dohnányi seems destined to be remembered only for his attractive but relatively trivial Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra, the rest of his sizeable output all but ignored.
The reasons can be found not in the quality of his work, which is proficiently crafted and lyrically expressive, but in his unwillingness to follow in the direction Schoenberg was taking modern music. Unlike Kodály and Bartók, Dohnányi's music was always conservative, looking back into the 19th century where his icon Brahms dwells. Even where his harmonies become more adventurously chromatic, as in the Third Quartet, there is always the current of nostalgia flowing through his music. Moreover, Dohnányi downplays his ethnic Hungarian origins - the folk elements so prominent in Bartók and Kodály are at best fleeting token gestures in Dohnányi, at least in these works.
In terms of invention and innovation therefore, Dohnányi's Quartets, whilst moving things on a little from Brahms, are rather pasty beside those of Bartók, yet for listeners accustomed to the quartets of Brahms, or more likely Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, those of Dohnányi will have much greater appeal. The First, written when Dohnányi was still quite young, is the product of 19th century Austria its date implies. The Third meanwhile, Dohnányi's last, is reminiscent of the harmonic lushness of Zemlinsky and Strauss, who were slightly older contemporaries.
The Aviv Quartet, no relation to the Tel Aviv Quartet, but also originating in Israel, are still relatively young as an ensemble, and their concentration seems to waver just a little on occasion, at least in the more complex Third, although Dohnányi's thick textures do not do them any favours. But their phrasing is attractive, and they generally make a reasonable, if not compelling case for these works. Nevertheless, albeit for several extra pounds, the Guarneri Quartet's 2009 release on RCA Red Seal is more appealing, featuring not only Dohnányi's Third Quartet, but also both his darker Second and Kodály's folk-inflected Second (88697158382).
Richard Whitehouse's fairly detailed notes give a movement-by-movement account of the Quartets from a slightly technical angle. The cover photo suggests Naxos might be running out of artwork!
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Attractive phrasing and a reasonable if not compelling case for these engagingly conservative works.