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Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Serenade for String Trio in C major, Op 10 (1902) [20:01]
String Quartet No. 3 in A minor, Op 33 (1926) [25:30]
Sextet for piano, clarinet, horn and string trio in C, Op 37 (1935) [30:36]
The Nash Ensemble
rec 2017, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDA68215 [76:08]

Up until pretty recently Dohnányi was of those composers who occupied a corner in the darkest recesses of my ignorance, due to uncommonly stupid stereotypes conceived in youth and maintained in middle-age through irrational stubbornness; others include Wolf-Ferrari, Glière and Lalo. I suspect these prejudices were forged in my late teens by live concert disappointments or uninformed selections from the (late-lamented) public record library at Manchester University Precinct. I do remember feeling perfectly bored by a live (allegedly) performance of the Variations on A Nursery Song around that time. This all changed a couple of years ago when Chandos collected up all their Dohnányi /BBC PO/ Bamert discs into an affordable box (CHAN 10906 - review) and I thought I should give them a go. I was astonished to find that most of these works are memorably tuneful, colourfully orchestrated and superbly laid out, though I might contend that his two symphonies are a little over-long. Anyway, if you do have a rather negative view of the ‘third’ most famous twentieth-century Hungarian composer this glorious disc will utterly confound it.

Hyperion certainly don’t harbour any lingering doubt about him– Martin Roscoe has recorded three discs of piano music as well as the two Piano Concertos, while their catalogue also contains accounts of the Violin Sonata, the two Piano Quintets and a searing rendition by Alban Gerhardt of the Konzertstück for cello and orchestra of 1904. The contemporaneous Serenade for string trio, op 10 features on the present disc; in fact this is the third version of this lovely work to have appeared on this label (the other accounts are by the Leopold String Trio (review) and the Schubert Ensemble of London (review))

The words ‘Nash’ and ‘Ensemble’ on the cover tell you all you need to know about performance standards – I have yet to encounter a disappointing Nash disc – but all three of these very different chamber pieces clearly reveal a wonderful composer: a craftsman with a fastidious technique, unlimited imagination, an ear for unforgettable melody and no little sense of adventure. The succinctly helpful Hyperion note (by Veronika Kusz) reveals why Dohnányi’s star waned in the half-century after his death. Allegations of wartime collaboration with the occupying Nazis, recently thoroughly disproved, have had a profoundly destructive effect on his legacy and reputation. It is no bad thing that labels like Chandos and Hyperion have led the way in his rehabilitation.

The Serenade is cast in five movements and lasts about 20 minutes. It is folk-tinged and sounds to my ears more modern than its 1902 composition date would suggest. Its inoffensive title belies the composer’s considerable ingenuity in putting it together. The Marcia presents the main theme in tandem with its inversion, while the delightful Romanza (characterised here by glowing and limpid pizzicato from the crack Nash trio of Gonley, Power and Brendel fils) is underpinned by gently conflicting rhythms. The unfussy Scherzo opens with percussive abandon before a more lyrical central section, while the compressed Tema con Variazioni (clearly Dohnányi’s favourite form) which follow weave subtle, winsome tapestries around a rather archaic unison theme. The Serenade is completed by a dazzling Rondo, which refers back to the theme of the opening movement and rounds matters off in a pleasingly symmetrical manner. This is indubitably a winning performance of Dohnányi’s best-known chamber work.

Its two companions here were completely unfamiliar to me. The Third Quartet emerged a quarter of a century later, and begins with a luxuriant Straussian gesture, before a strident two-note viola motif triggers momentum. This opening movement bristles with fervent passion which is all the more affecting in the Nash’s supremely controlled account. The power in this performance lies squarely in the naturalness with which they project Dohnányi’s often extreme dynamic contrasts; in this regard they are helped by a typically detailed Hyperion recording presented in the sympathetic acoustic of All Saints’ Church in East Finchley. The opening of the slow movement is rather hymn-like, the Nash quartet luminously conveying the spirit of its Andante religioso marking. The clever variations which follow are flecked with the inventive style that characterised the parallel section in the Serenade. They are richly coloured and contrasted here. At the heart of this movement is an exciting and rapid scherzo section which truly heightens the impact of the return to the religioso spirit at the movement’s conclusion. The concluding Vivace giocoso taps into the musical zeitgeist of the mid 1920s, unexpectedly hinting at jazz and Les Six. The Nash’s rendition of the accelerando coda is riveting.
If the Quartet blindsided me, I was even more taken with Dohnányi’s Sextet of 1935. It’s opening is dark and dramatic, this time evoking the Strauss of Ein Heldenleben – yet by the time one reaches the end of this fascinating piece this will be a sepia-tinged memory from a parallel universe. It’s the presence of Richard Watkins’ horn which in my view accentuates both the fertility of Dohnányi’s sonic imagination and the highly-charged late-romantic energy which courses through the first three-quarters of this work. Yet while wistfulness and nostalgia seem to be at the core of this music, its regular chromatic adventures (and inevitably the pungent and exposed wind textures) invoke the world of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, a much older piece, of course, but one that presaged a completely new world of sound. What impresses is the cogency of the whole structure and the means with which the composer pulls these very disparate stylistic threads together in a panel of compelling unity. The three succeeding movements are briefer, but no less substantial in musical terms. The Intermezzo’s eerie, sepulchral opening is soon subsumed into an insistent, piano-led dance. This enigmatic music offers up yet more solo opportunities for the Nash players – again Watkins’ horn is at the centre of things in a notably brooding episode towards the end of the movement. Richard Hosford’s lovely clarinet delivers a beguiling melody at the outset of the third movement, yet another theme-with-variations construction which leads directly into the sunny, jazzy and waltz-tinged finale which is surely incapable of prompting anything other than a smile. This superb work covers a hugely varied emotional terrain in its half-hour duration but it absolutely demands one’s unfettered attention – it ensured that this reviewer at least was blissfully unaware of meaningless trifles like the passage of time.

Dohnányi’s Sextet is played here with ardent conviction while the presence of the wind instruments lends a yet more pleasing bloom to Hyperion’s sound. It concludes a revealing disc which can only encourage those of us who had previously written off this composer to seek out more of his attractive and resourcefully made music.

Richard Hanlon


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