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Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960) Orchestral Works
James Ehnes (violin); Howard Shelley (piano); Clifford Lantaff (harp)
BBC Philharmonic/Matthias Bamert
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 21-22 September 1995 (CD 4), 19-20 November 1997 (CD 2), 22-23 October 1998 (CD 3), 12-14 September 2001 (CD 1), 6-7 January 2004 (CD 5) CHANDOS CHAN10906(5)X [5 CDs: 336:26]
There are numerous composers who are remembered for just a handful of works, some for just one. Ernst von Dohnányi is mainly remembered for just two - his Wedding Waltz and his very enjoyable, witty Variations on a Nursery Theme. I had the great pleasure to review the Chandos CD in this series that included both of these (review). Based on that album I was eager to hear more so I hastened to acquire a review copy of this 5 CD Dohnányi collection.
I will admit to having mixed feelings. I was greatly impressed with Dohnányi’s writing for orchestra. He often wrote for large forces and in epic proportions. So much so that sometimes I have to admit that I suffered ear fatigue and thought that judicious cuts would not have gone amiss. On the positive side his writing is full of colour, atmosphere and dramatic intensity. His writing for wind instruments is especially noteworthy. After enjoying the melodies of the Nursery Variations I was surprised to note that his melodic gifts bestowed elsewhere were not so refulgent although, perhaps, repeated hearings of his works could reveal a subtle diffuse melodic style. CD 1 - Ruralia hungarica and Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. Dohnányi’s Ruralia hungarica celebrates his homeland’s folk music with authentic melodies, collected by Bartók and Kodály, all presented in glowing, vibrant orchestral dress. The opening movement introduces a pastoral atmosphere with important material for oboe and strings and then comes a song for clarinet about a weeping willow. The music is warm and sunny, sentimental but with a dramatically tense climax. The second movement is a racy, thrusting rondo with a touch of the oriental. The third movement is gentler, calmer and wistful and innocent. The fourth movement is full of emotion, quite raw at times when it touches on the depravity of a girl who is banished from her home. Finally the Fifth movement rushes headlong to a tempestuous conclusion.
Dohnányi’s First Piano Concerto won him the Bösendorfer Prize in 1899 and helped him forge an international career as composer and pianist. It will be remembered that Bösendorfer pianos were prized for their additional keyboard octave. This First Piano Concerto is an amazing, assured accomplishment for a 20/21 year old. Granted it is derivative, especially of Brahms and his First Piano Concerto; nevertheless it is built on an epic scale with swaggering élan. Its opening movement is dramatically defiant with powerfully driven substance contrasting with more pliant, intimate material. The second movement is deeply felt and rhapsodic with a nod towards Liszt as well as Brahms. The finale feels rather overblown and laboured despite an attractive waltz subject. In all, this is a promising and imposing early work. CD 2 - Symphony No. 1 in D minor for Large Orchestra and American Rhapsody. Dohnányi’s First Symphony was written just three years or so after the First Piano Concerto and here we are beginning to be aware of a more individual style developing. He scores the orchestra adroitly. Unlike the First Piano Concerto it is less derivative; although, like that work, it is portentous and intense and is a marathon indulgence, sprawling over almost an hour. It begins in the manner of Bruckner and its opening movement spreads over a glut of moods from no-nonsense harshness and martial heroics through eerie and mysterious stuff to intimate sentimentality visiting folk material on the way and indulging in fist-shaking bombast towards its end. The middle movements impress most. The second movement (of five) is clever and lush, beginning with feather-light balletic music that would not have disgraced Tchaikovsky. Later there are martial rumblings again, an eerie episode and a rather appealing consolatory melody. The writing for divided strings impresses. There follows a short Scherzo, presto that is mercurial in character and not unlike Berlioz or Liszt. A brief Intermezzo is effectively a miniature rhapsody for solo viola supported by a reduced orchestra of strings, oboes and bassoons. The Finale brings back the bombast and includes a set of variations: nobly heroic, then tranquil. It also embraces a sort of fanfare and a stately brass chorale. There is a vigorous fugue and the whole work ends blazingly.
Dohnányi spent the last years of his life in America where he had fled unacceptable Nazi and communist regimes in his native Hungary and in Austria. He was appointed as a piano professor and composer-in-residence at Florida State University in Tallahassee in 1949 and four years later composed his last work for orchestra – his American Rhapsody which is reminiscent of Dvořák’s New World Symphony in that there are elements that suggest a homesickness for his beloved Hungary. Included are references to American folk tunes: Turkey in the Straw, On Top of Old Smokey and I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger. CD 3 – Suite, Op. 19;Variations on a Nursery Themeand Suite fromThe Veil ofPierrette. This album includes the composer’s best known works – the Nursery Theme Variations and the Wedding Waltz from The Veil of Pierrette. Back in 1999 I wrote of the charm of The Veil of Pierrette Suite with its sad sighing yet resentful little ‘Pierrott’s Love-lament’, the jolly ‘Waltz-rondo’ movement and the ‘Merry Funeral March’ as well as that famous ‘Wedding Waltz’. The Suite Op. 19 again shows off Dohnányi’s gift for parody. It is a sunny work with a sparkling set of variations. Then come The Variations on a Nursery Theme of which I suggested that although this performance could not displace the celebrated 1960 recording made by Julius Katchen and the LPO conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, it is nevertheless a very fine reading with Howard Shelley entering into the spirit of this satire with sensitivity and gusto. CD 4 - Symphonic Minutes and Symphony No. 2in E major. The short Symphonic Minutes was composed at the height of the composer’s career. Dohnányi was dazzling European and American audiences with his amazing virtuoso piano playing, administering Hungarian Radio music output and composing, not to mention his professorial duties at the Budapest Academy. The Symphonic Minutes begins with a vivacious ‘Capriccio’ followed by a lovely Autumnal ‘Rapsodia Andante’, its gentle nostalgic flow brushed aside for a menacing climax. The tiny irregular and angular Scherzo is sinister and mysterious and somewhat tempestuous. A set of variations on a folk-like theme is followed by a final ‘Rondo Presto’.
The Second Symphony was written in the dark days of the Second World War. Dohnányi revised the score in the mid-1950s when he was in America. Like the First Symphony it is scored for a large orchestra and is on an epic scale. The opening movement is clearly influenced by wartime horrors. Its lyricism crushed by military might and authoritarian brutality. The second movement is marked Adagio Pastorale, molto con sentiment which says it all; here is gentle tranquillity and ardent lyricism climaxing in ecstasy. This functions as a necessary antidote to the revulsion of the Symphony’s opening. The third movement, marked Burla Allegro, is an impish, sneering concoction lampooning authority. The Final movement is complex and impressively imaginative in its construction. It embraces a theme and variations on Bach’s chorale ‘Come, sweet death, come blissful peace’. These include jubilant and stately material and sentimental figures plus an enchanting Adagio. There follows not only a fugue on the Bach theme but an imposing and majestic coda in the shape of a March. CD 5 - Violin Concerto No. 2 in C minor; Concertino for Harp and Orchestra and Piano Concerto No. 2 in B minor. These three works span the years 1946 to 1952 with the Harp and Violin Concertos written in Dohnányi’s last years spent in America. The composition of the Piano Concerto served a most practical need - a vehicle to show off Dohnányi’s piano playing virtuosity in times of adversity which were upon him. It has more than a passing nod to Rachmaninov and even cheekily quotes from that composer’s third Piano Concerto. Howard Shelley again displays his technical mastery and sensitivity. James Ehnes shines too as the soloist in Dohnányi’s Second Violin Concerto which, although quite Brahmsian, also has a lushness that might be compared to the violin concertos of Korngold and Barber. The Harp Concertino is a revelation. It’s opening Andante is other-worldly, ethereal, languid and perfumed. It is something of a wistful longing for his Hungarian homeland and indeed the harp at one point makes a very realistic imitation of a cimbalom. The short Allegretto vivace is once again a witty sardonic piece while the concluding Adagio is another lovely gentle item but with an insistent timpani ostinato just threatening its mood. This is a composition that deserves greater exposure. Ian Lace