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Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
The Veil of Pierrette, Pantomime in three acts, op.18 (1908/09)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ariane Matiakh
rec. 2019, ORF Radio Kulturhaus, Vienna

In 1999, I invested in Chandos’ recording (CHAN 9733) of Dohnányi’s great Suite in F sharp minor for orchestra, op.19, the well-loved Variations on a Nursery Tune, op.25 for piano and orchestra and a selection of four numbers from The Veil of Pierrette. op.18. The concertante work was played by Howard Shelley with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Matthias Bamert.

I recall little about The Veil save the vibrant pastiche ‘Viennese’ Wedding Waltz. Some thirty years later, Capriccio Records have issued the premiere recording of the entire piece. Much as I enjoyed virtually every bar in this new release, I am left wondering if this long piece works without the stagecraft and dancing. Perhaps the derived ‘Suite’ was enough material for all but the biggest enthusiasts of the composer?

A couple of notes about the composer may set the context. Ernst von Dohnányi was a Hungarian born composer, conductor and pianist. He was born in Pressburg, now Bratislava (Slovakia) on 27 July 1877. His early masterpiece, the Piano Quintet (1895). was performed in Vienna at the behest of Brahms. For several years, Dohnányi toured the music centres of Europe and the United States as a concert pianist, before accepting a professorship at the Royal High School in Berlin. This was followed by the directorship of the Royal Music Academy in Budapest and latterly as musical director of Hungarian Radio. For many years Dohnányi was chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. After some post-war accusations of anti-Bolshevik activities and suggestions of Nazi collaboration during the War, Dohnányi and his wife emigrated to the United States He died in New York on 9 February 1960.

Dohnányi’s music is largely traditional in aesthetic and was in the trajectory of his mentor Johannes Brahms. He was little influenced by the folk music of Hungary like fellow countryman Béla Bartok. In 2020, Dohnányi is best recalled for the above-mentioned Variations, the Konzertstück for Cello and Orchestra in D major, op. 12 and the Serenade for String Trio in C major, op. 10. A few piano pieces, including the Four Rhapsodies, op.11 have maintained a toehold on the repertoire.

Turning now to the present CD, first, a definition of ‘pantomime’ may help. Used in the context of this work, the word has little to do with the delightful tradition associated with British Christmases: Aladdin, Cinderella and Peter Pan. Here the genre is quite simply a ‘mimed entertainment.’ In this case it is a ‘black comedy’ rather than something to laugh about.

The Veil of Pierrette was based on a scenario devised by the Viennese novelist and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler. Ernst von Dohnányi completed the score during 1908-09 and the work was first performed the on 22 January 1910 in Dresden. The ‘pantomime’ is presented in three acts.

The three main protagonists here are Pierrette, Pierrot, and Harlequin, all ‘colourful’ characters from the commedia dell’arte. Despite no singing being required, the principals were performed by opera singers with the minor characters acted by ballet dancers.

The plot is based on Pierrette leaving her lover, Pierrot, and seeking to marry Harlequin. She regrets her rashness and at the last-minute returns to Pierrot to jointly commit suicide. She offers poison to Pierrot, which he drinks, but alas Pierrette does not have the daring to kill herself. She leaves her paramour dying and runs back to Harlequin. Now the relevance of the title is revealed. Harlequin notices that her veil is missing. He forces her to go back to Pierrot’s room where the body is found next to the fatal draught and the veil. Harlequin insists that she drink a toast to her lover. Locked in the room she goes mad. When friends open the door both Pierrot and Pierrette are found dead.

The Veil of Pierrette has not held its place in the repertoire down the years. On the other hand, the Wedding Waltz became extremely popular and even managed to give Richard Strauss’s waltz sequence from Der Rosenkavalier a run for its money.

It is hard to define the musical style of this ‘pantomime’. I guess that I would note Dohnányi’s ability to synthesise a variety of late-Romantic styles. Despite some nods to other composers such as Sibelius, Mahler and Richard Strauss (and even Johann Strauss), this imaginative music is marked by integrity and musical competence. It is not a ‘string of pearls’ sourced from a variety of post-Romantic composers but is a valid score.

The liner notes, written by Christian Heindl, give a good account of the genesis and performance of The Veil as well as an introduction to the composer’s life and times. The performance by Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ariane Matiakh is always sympathetic and splendidly played.

Dohnányi’s music for The Veil is enjoyable, cleverly devised, full of melody and delightfully orchestrated. There are a wide variety of moods often characterised by despair and charisma. Whether the 80-minute length of this ‘pantomime’ will militate against it establishing a niche in the concert hall or record charts remains to be seen. What Capriccio Records have done is to provide the first complete recording of one of Dohnányi’s most vibrant and interesting works. For this reason alone, it is an essential project.

John France  


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