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Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1 (1895) [29:20]
Piano Quintet No. 2 in E flat minor, Op. 26 (1914) [24:55]
Gottlieb Wallisch (piano)
Ensō String Quartet
rec. 2007, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Canada.
NAXOS 8.570572 [54:15]

Ernő Dohnányi enjoyed quite a success with his First Piano Quintet. Written in 1895 when Dohnányi was still in his teens, it was praised highly by Brahms - perhaps because it is frankly Brahmsian in scale and to some degree in style — Dohnányi was one of music’s great conservatives. Bartok was four years behind him at the same school, but you would never guess that. Anyone who enjoys Brahms’ chamber music will certainly be delighted by these works, and here we have a very good account of them – in fact it is mystery of the Naxos release schedules as to why it was not released sooner, having been recorded in 2007.

The Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor is Dohnányi’s first publication, but there is nothing immature about this particular Opus 1. I wish I had known it when once involved in a dinner party challenge to establish ‘music’s best Opus 1’ – that would have silenced the show-offs proposing Berg’s Piano Sonata and Webern’s Passacaglia. The four movements of the Quintet No. 1 are well-proportioned and contrasted, and there is attractive melodic invention in each. The first subject of the opening Allegro is striking enough to command attention, and the development generates a fair degree of propulsion. The piano writing sounds a real challenge at times (Dohnányi was a virtuoso) but Gottlieb Wallisch rises to it impressively. The slow movement is the romantic heart of the work, with a warm main theme and at times great ardour. The string players respond with touching expression here, and with rhythmic flair in the high-stepping finale.

The composer next tackled the form in 1914, and the three-movement Piano Quintet in E flat minor Op. 26 is a very worthy successor. In the excellent booklet note Richard Whitehouse rightly points to its harmonic ambiguity as evidence of the composer’s awareness of contemporary developments in music. However it is far from a challenging listen, and of such quality that one wonders why it is not heard more often. The Ensō String Quartet and Wallisch are as convincing in this as they are in the C minor work, and the recording allows us to hear plenty of the enchanting compositional detail.

The acoustic of the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto sounds just about right for chamber music of this scale. So this is all-round a very successful disc, and the playing is so persuasive that one wishes they had used the spare twenty minutes or so of unused time on the disc for some more of Dohnányi’s chamber music.

Gottlieb Wallisch and the Ensō String Quartet do not have the field to themselves in these works however. On ASV the Vanbrugh Quartet is joined by Martin Roscoe in equally good performances, a little more urgent than these Naxos versions in every movement. They also add a fifteen-minute Dohnányi piece for solo piano, his Suite in the Old Style from 1913, which is worth obtaining if you do not have Roscoe’s version already on his recent complete Dohnányi piano music survey for Hyperion. That 1995 disc might be hard to find now, but there is also a 2008 Praga SACD in the Kocian Quartet’s series of the composer’s chamber music. The latter adds the substantial cello sonata to the quintets to give an eighty minute playing time. That said, for a bargain disc devoted just to these two splendid Piano Quintets, this Naxos issue is very welcome indeed.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: David Barker



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