Ernó DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
String Quartets: No. 1 Op. 7 (1899) [27.50]; No. 3 in A minor Op. 33 (1926) [29.39]
Aviv Quartet (Sergey Ostrovsky (violin I); Evgenia Epshtein (violin II); Nathan Braude (viola); Rachel Mercer (cello))
rec. St. Anne’s Church, Toronto, Canada, 17-19 May 2010
NAXOS 8.572569 [57.29]

I have always thought of Dohnányi as, primarily, an orchestral composer. I suppose this was because the first pieces of his I ever got to know - the only ones I have really got to know - are the Ruralia Hungarica, written twenty-five years after the 1st Quartet and the even more famous Variations on Nursery Song. In more recent times I have got to know the Second Symphony a little (Chandos CHAN 9455). I have overlooked the chamber music; and I shouldn’t have done. It was indeed with a chamber work, his First Piano Quartet, that he first attracted the attention in 1895 of Brahms whose style can be detected in the First String Quartet. Dohnányi went on to study composition with Eugen D’Albert but it was also as pianist that he initially became known. In 1932 he even recorded some of own piano music (review).
After teaching in Berlin Dohnányi left Germany in the early days of the First War and went back home to work in Budapest. There he promoted the music of his countrymen especially his friends and fellow folk-song collectors Kodály and Bartók. At the end of his life, like Bartók, he gravitated towards America and is buried at Tallahassee, Florida of all places.
Dohnányi 1st Quartet has much that is nineteenth century romantic about it in its four movements. Brahms is to be heard as Richard Whitehouse points out in his informative booklet notes. The first movement is in clear sonata-form, but in the second movement I detected a touch of Dvorák. The movement is marked Allegretto grazioso. There are some folk-like elements in the main theme of the third movement a lovely Adagio, and in the drone bass accompaniment to the second theme in the breezy Vivace finale. Although weighing in at nearly half-an-hour the piece, for an early work, did not “outstay its hour”. It delivers a pleasing if somewhat undemanding experience, There were however some slightly quirky modulations, which point to a new way forward.
Along with their many other projects Naxos’s commitment to Dohnányi is noticeable. This is the fifth disc devoted to him in recent times. One can assume that the missing Second Quartet written during the First World War will appear in due course. It appears not to be available anywhere at present.
The Third Quartet, which curiously comes first on the disc, is an important utterance. The booklet notes say that the composer’s “significant handling of form in this piece is paralleled by a new expressive freedom”. I certainly concur but would add that by 1926 just a short time after Ruralia Hungarica’s success Dohnányi had finally found his voice. This quartet has just three movements. In the substantial first the two subjects are dramatically opposed both in terms of mood and key. I felt at times that the Aviv Quartet - beautifully photographed by the way on the back of the booklet - could have characterised these ideas even more firmly. Nevertheless there are some seriously passionate passages and some that are powerfully rhythmic which elicit strong attack and decisive commitment; note the breathless coda.
The second movement demonstrates the refreshing and free-thinking use of form mentioned earlier. It begins with a hymn-like opening, reminding me of a Victorian chant. After some development this falls into a Scherzo of some wit. There follows a strongly emotional passage based over a repeated pedal note. This dies into the opening melody, which is subtly varied and developed, especially in the accompanimental figures. The ending is calm and contented. The finale, by contrast, ends in a syncopated and excitingly rumbustious climax: an exhilarating Vivace giocoso. This is electric stuff at times and the playing likewise. In fact, as so often happens, I felt myself bemused as to why this quartet is not more often played and part of the standard repertoire. Perhaps someone in Hungary could tell us if it’s better known in Budapest.
I can only say that the disc is well worth the required modest investment even if only for the Third Quartet. Nothing about it will disappoint.

Gary Higginson

Well worth the required modest investment even if only for the Third Quartet.