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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G, Op. 31 No. 1 (1801-2) [24:42]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in G, D894 (1826) [31:21]
Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Scherzino, Op. 41 No. 2 (1945) [2:29]
March, Op. 17 No. 1 (1907) [3:21]
Cascade, Op. 41 No. 4 (1945) [2:58]
Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, Op. 29 (1917) [8:42]
Rhapsody in F sharp minor, Op. 11 No. 2 (1902-3) [6:12]
Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song (1920) [5:01]
Ruralia hungarica, Op. 32a No. 6 (1923) [5:49]
Capriccio in A minor, Op. 23 No. 3 (1912) [3:03]
Rhapsody in C, Op. 11 No. 3 (1902-3) [4:10]
Symphonic Minutes, Op. 36 Nos 1-3, 5 [8:53]
Ernst von Dohnányi (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Ernst von Dohnányi
rec. London, 16 & 18 February 1936; Edinburgh, 19 August 1956; Tallahassee, Florida, 1 March 1959
TESTAMENT SBT21505 [56:03 + 51:05]

Ernst von Dohnányi – here described as ‘Ernö Dohnányi’, a name he used just about as often as Mrs H.H.A. Beach used ‘Amy Beach’ – did more for Hungarian music in the first half of last century than anyone else. His reward for untiring toil as pianist, conductor, composer, teacher and administrator was to be accused at the end of the war of having been a Nazi. In truth he had constantly striven against the fascist regime of Admiral Horthy and had lost a son to the Nazi execution squads in the wake of the July Plot against Hitler. Recent research has shown that he was politically conservative but nothing more.

His manifold activities meant that Dohnányi, a major piano virtuoso, had limited time for practising; and composing often had to wait until he was recovering from some illness. Even in the 1930s, when he was theoretically at his peak as a pianist, he was sometimes criticised for technical lapses – in an enjoyable booklet essay, Jonathan Summers quotes one such critique from his 1936 London visit. Although Dohnányi made a reasonable number of recordings, many of them came from the last decade of his life, when he was living and teaching in America. His pupil Bela Siki once recalled that Dohnányi could rarely remember his own compositions. In his 70s he was obviously not the lion of the keyboard that he had been. Yet he remained a wonderful pianist and a front-rank interpreter. Of the recordings here, his final recital from Florida University in 1959 has been available before, on a BBC LP which had relatively little publicity. The rest is fresh to the market, as they say in the antiques business.

The opening flourishes of the Beethoven sonata set the tone, not exactly tidy but getting the spirit of the music exactly right: the first movement has tremendous lift and impetus, indeed freshness. The 82-year-old summons up a lovely cantabile for the Adagio grazioso and really takes off in the agitated central section. The piano tone is realistic. Dohnányi begins the Rondo quite guilelessly. He does not exactly clarify the texture in the heavier moments but again gets the spirit of it right, putting it over with terrific gusto. There are lovely touches and the ending is really witty.

It has become received wisdom that Schnabel revived Schubert’s piano sonatas, but in truth the G major, D894, sometimes given the subtitle Fantasia, was known to a number of pianists; and its Menuetto was known to an even greater number. I have found a Dohnányi performance of the whole sonata in 1907, so he certainly knew it well by then. His Florida performance is treasurable, not least for the tempi, so much better than the funereal speeds adopted by Sviatoslav Richter. The first movement is beautifully played and the Andante is given a nice thoughtful reading, with excellent rhythm and a good dynamic range. The famous Menuetto is marvellous and Dohnányi’s approach to the Allegretto is just right, despite the odd inaccuracy: he teases it out beautifully. Various commentators have remarked on the contrast between this genial sonata and the other G major work from the same period, the epic string quartet. Too many pianists play it with a misguided attempt at Profundity with a capital P. Dohnányi returns it to its proper nature and thereby achieves real profundity.

The three encores are all Dohnanyi compositions. The Scherzino is delightfully played, with wonderful rhythm and a twinkling ending. The March – with emendations not in the published score, Summers tells us – has a marvellous left-hand part: Dohnányi varies his dynamics and again the ending is pleasing. He announces the final encore, Cascade, a fine water piece which is superbly played. As Summers comments: ‘It is obvious that he loved to play the piano and retained the technique to do so right until the end of his life.’

Six more Dohnányi pieces come from a broadcast recital at the 1956 Edinburgh Festival. The Variations on a Hungarian Folksong give rise to wonderful colours, contrasts and rhythms. The F sharp minor Rhapsody, a piece in the grand manner, gets appropriate treatment with a characterful quiet ending. The Pastorale, based on the Christmas song The Angel is from Heaven, is a lovely piece which Dohnányi previously recorded in the studio in 1929. The Adagio non troppo from the original piano score of Ruralia hungarica has one of those soulful Hungarian melodies for its main theme and an impassioned central section, leading to a reprise of the main theme and a nice rippling ending. The Capriccio is a terrific performance of a virtuoso piece, with a fine dynamic range.

Dohnányi did not record his most celebrated short piano piece, the C major Rhapsody, until his Remington period; but a 1936 live performance was captured on inferior equipment. The sound quality demands a good deal of tolerance but amid the noise and the wow you can hear a terrific performance which demands another kind of Wow! From a concert two days earlier with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – unmentioned in the recording details – comes an equally primitive off-the-air recording of four of Dohnányi’s five Symphonic Minutes. The tolerant ear will pick up some very nifty orchestral playing in the three faster movements – the Capriccio is almost like gossamer – but pitch waver afflicts the slower Rapsodia. The music is attractive.

Tully Potter


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