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Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Being Earnest
Piano Quintet No. 2 in E flat minor, Op. 26 (1914) [25.09]
Sextet in C major for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn, Op. 37 (1934) [29.13]
Ensemble Raro: Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Razvan Popovici (viola), Bernhard Naoki Hedenborg (cello), Diana Ketler (piano)
with Daniel Rowland (violin II), Thorsten Johanns (clarinet), Olivier Darbellay (horn)
rec. 2016 Studio 2, Rundfunk München (Munich)
SOLO MUSICA SM250 [54.22]

On the Solo Musica label Ensemble Raro has released an album titled 'Being Earnest' comprising of two highly attractive chamber works from Ernst von Dohnányi. These works (the Piano Quintet No. 2 and Piano Sextet) have several accounts already in the record catalogues, but in truth I only rarely come across them on radio and in recital performances.

Whilst the compositions of Bartók and Kodály embody a twentieth-century consciousness, Dohnányi’s music is conservative and tonal, embedded in the Hungarian Nationalist traditions of the nineteenth century. At one time Dohnányi’s music was classed alongside that of Bartók and Kodály, his close contemporaries and fellow countrymen. However, Dohnányi’s reputation suffered from accusations that he was a Nazi collaborator back in his native Hungary during World War 2, which he and his family always denied. Such charges can badly stain a composer’s status and it can take decades for achieving rehabilitation, Dohnányi’s case being a good example.

As a pianist, Dohnányi was interested in chamber music from his formative years. Aged eighteen and a composition student at the Budapest Academy of Music his Piano Quintet in C minor (1895) was presented to no less a figure than Brahms in Vienna, who endorsed the work. Nearly twenty years later, in 1914, Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in E flat minor was played, according to his widow Ilona, in San Francisco, Berlin and Manchester, England. The first of the three movements, Allegro non troppo, commences with a sense of distinctly uneasy calm. Several times squally passages threaten the tranquillity, eventually succeeding at 4.40-5.52. In the central movement an ebullient Intermezzo contains a Mendelssohnian elfin-like quality. Marked Moderato, the Finale, so eloquent and beautifully crafted, opens with soothing introspection. Gradually in a central passage the writing becomes restless and windswept, before returning to the brooding character of the opening.

In 1893 Dohnányi wrote a Sextet scored for strings. Over forty years later, in 1934, he composed another Sextet, this time scored for the combination of piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn. The composer premièred the work the same year, and it was published in 1946, along with several other works. Cast in four movements, the opening marked Allegro appassionato is moody and emotional, switching from at its extremes calm reflection to excitement. The Intermezzo, an Adagio, begins and ends in a somewhat weak and colourless mood, flanking an earnest march-like section that varies in potency. Movement three, Allegro con sentiment, starts with folk-like melodies on the clarinet, followed by a contrasting set of variations. Marked Allegro vivace, giocoso, the Finale, featuring a happy-go-lucky-theme, is strongly ebullient and sunny in character. Characteristical of Dohnányi, the part-writing is extremely effective throughout.

This is accomplished playing from Ensemble Raro and its three guest players, marked by impeccable unity with their individual timbre blending together beautifully. One senses that the chamber ensemble has fully engaged with Dohnányi’s discerning and elegant soundworld. Recorded at the studios of Rundfunk München, the sound quality is clear, and strings, wind and brass are extremely well balanced, although the dynamic range is slightly wider than I generally prefer. The release contains an interesting essay, titled The Importance of Being Receptive, written by Andris Brinkman and Diana Ketler, which compares several aspects of Dohnányi’s life to that of celebrated playwright Oscar Wilde. There are five excellent photographs in the well presented booklet, too. More information on the actual work would have been helpful and I have to point out the short playing time of only 54 minutes.

Expertly performed, these two impeccably crafted chamber scores from Dohnányi make a refreshing change from the standard repertoire one usually encounters.

Michael Cookson



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