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/*Lawrance Collingwood
rec. 1928-31, London

This disc usefully gathers together all the recordings made by Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) during two visits to London in 1928 and 1931. He paid the first of these visits with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was music director from 1919 until the orchestra was disbanded in 1941. The recordings appear here in new transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn.
The recording that I was most keen to hear is of the piece that is Dohnányi’s best-known, the Variations on a Nursery Tune in which the composer plays the solo piano part. He recorded the work again - also in London - in 1956 for EMI when he was partnered by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Adrian Boult. By a nice piece of serendipity the producer of that 1956 recording was Lawrance Collingwood, who wielded the baton - very effectively - for Dohnányi’s 1931 LSO recording, preserved here. The recording, made in the Kingsway Hall, is not the greatest in terms of sonics; the sound is, inevitably, a bit shrill and boxy. However, once my ears had adjusted - which didn’t take too long - I enjoyed the performance very much. It’s full of good humour and no little brilliance. The composer is a good soloist and the contribution of the LSO is equally good. The waltz, Variation VII, has a good swing to it and the Presto, Variation IX, sounds akin to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The concluding fugato fairly skips along. Mark Obert-Thorn has done a fine job of restoration and we hear far more detail than we have a right to expect from a recording that’s now over eight decades old.
Directing his Budapest orchestra from the keyboard in 1928, Dohnányi gives a good account of K.453. The Budapest band isn’t in the same class as the LSO - the rather stodgy introduction to the slow movement confirms that - but they support Dohnányi loyally. As soloist, Dohnányi is graceful in the first movement. He performs his own cadenza (9:01 - 10:43), which I enjoyed. His cadenza in the slow movement (7:45 - 9:07) is a thoughtful re-examination of that movement’s material. The finale, one of Mozart’s most engaging rondos, finds the orchestra on more deft form and Dohnányi offers spirited playing, especially in the concluding presto.

The remaining contents of the disc aren’t as noteworthy. However, there’s an interesting opportunity to compare two recordings of the Berlioz Hungarian March. The first recording was made on 16 June 1928 in an unknown but clearly acoustically confined location. That recording was for Columbia. Just two days later Dohnányi and the Budapest Philharmonic decamped to the Queen’s Hall to record the same piece and other material but this time for HMV. As Mark Obert-Thorn points out, the first recording is pretty constricted and, frankly, it’s not a very pleasant listening experience. The Queen’s Hall recording is much better and offers a more flattering - or, perhaps, fairer - representation of what the orchestra could do. It’s also interesting to compare the two excerpts from Ruralia Hungarica. Both as a performance and a recording the piece set down in 1931 with the LSO (Op.32b, No 2) is superior to the 1928 traversal of Op.32b No 5 with the Budapest Orchestra.
Ernst von Dohnányi was a considerable, all-round musician and these recordings are welcome as they give us a good representation of him as composer, conductor and pianist. Mark Obert-Thorn has done a fine job in giving a new lease of life to these recordings some eighty years after they were made.

John Quinn  

A good representation of Ernst von Dohnányi as a considerable, all-round musician. 

See also review by Jonathan Woolf