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Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Piano Quintet no. 1 in C minor Op 1 (1895) [30.43]
String Quartet no. 2 in D flat major Op 15 (1906) [24.32]
Piano Quintet no. 2 in E flat minor Op 26 (1914) [25.43]
Takács Quartet
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, UK
HYPERION CDA68238 [80.58]

Yet more Dohnányi on Hyperion, and here they’re doubling up on the two piano quintets which were previously laid down most handsomely by the Schubert Ensemble of London (review); the new disc also throws the little known String Quartet No 2 into the mix, whereas the Schuberts’ ‘filler’ (both pieces are far too substantial to merit that rather pejorative descriptor) is the relatively ubiquitous Serenade, Op 10. While this plump new issue (it runs to 81 minutes) constitutes a most agreeable recital in itself, I rather wonder if it is aimed more at those collectors (understandably, there are many in each category) who buy anything and everything recorded by Marc-André Hamelin and/or the Takács Quartet. Of course the Takács have Hungarian music embedded in their DNA, while Hamelin is, basically, Hamelin and impeccable performance standards are therefore a given; but I was not a little surprised at how well the Schubert Ensemble’s accounts of the two quintets stand up to comparison, even after 25 years - their pianist William Howard certainly sounds well alongside his more feted counterpart. In terms of both pace and interpretation the respective accounts seem remarkably similar. As for the sound, the new recordings are arguably a little more present and detailed, but there is characteristic Hyperion warmth and bloom in both discs – not unexpectedly given that the peerless Andrew Keener was at the controls in both cases.

One just knows that the meaty Brahmsian theme of the opening Allegro movement of the Piano Quintet No 1 will convert magnificently into the major (as it does at the conclusion of both its outer movements); what also comes over in spades is the extraordinary fluency and maturity of the teenage Dohnanyi’s technical accomplishment (the dainty pizzicato embellishments at 2:22 are a delightful example of his prodigious sophistication). James A Grymes’ detailed note refers to Brahms’ famous reaction on first encountering the work, although some might judge that this ultimately created a rod for Dohnányi’s back. Hamelin injects a tad more puckishness into the Scherzo’s flowing piano part than Howard but the latter’s slightly cooler approach is also most convincing in the circumstances. Grymes also points up the Schumannesque elements of the Adagio, quasi andante slow movement, and the string players on both recordings revel in the winsomeness of its uninterrupted melody. As ever, Hamelin emerges as a most generous chamber musician, personifying discretion in Dohnanyi’s unobstrusive piano commentary and yielding to the quartet when appropriate, although he lets rip with characteristic Hamelinian fireworks when neccessary (the bold entry at 4:27 for instance). The conclusion of this movement is certainly more affecting in the new account. Honours are more even in the galumphing 5/4s of the concluding Allegro animato – Allegro, the slightly more objective sound of the Schuberts’ perhaps even working in their favour although Dohnányi’s coda blazes with real passion in this new account.

Dohnányi adopted a more concentrated three movement design for the Piano Quintet No 2 of 1914. Almost two decades had elapsed since his first essay in the form, and compared to obvious contemporaries such as Bartók or to those from other countries such as Szymanowski, Enescu, or even Frank Bridge it has often been suggested that his melodic and harmonic language had barely progressed at all. Perhaps this perceived stasis has counted against him in the long run, but few would argue that for all its Brahmsian vigour this second Quintet is still an attractive proposition, nor is it completely untouched by either chromaticism or ambiguity. Its rippling opening (which returns to great effect at the movement’s close) is certainly darker, more obviously chromatic but this lightens when the piano launches the first theme. Much of what follows is certainly terser than its predecessor. Hamelin and the Takács seem a little less reined-in than the Schuberts, drawing redder blood at the melodramatic points in the middle of the movement, but Dohnányi’s more adventurous impulses certainly don’t lose their edginess in the latter group’s more objective playing. Differences between the two performances are even less marked in the other two movements notwithstanding the slightly meatier sound on the new disc. Both ensembles splendidly capture the concentrated restlessness in the variations of the central Intermezzo. There is absolutely nothing between them in tempo – both accounts come in at 5:14. The same is true in the finale, where the tentativeness of its opening, the gravity of its piano chorale (from 1:56 here) and the slow-burn of its structure are most similarly projected. As in its predecessor Dohnányi turns the theme in the minor at the outset of the first movement into the major to conclude the finale, though his means of getting there are most certainly more convoluted, belying his obstinately Brahmsian reputation. Towards the end Hamelin conveys a tad more modernity than Howard in the sequence of descending figurations in the lead-up to the work’s understated coda. The Quintet No 2 is one of those pieces that really creeps up on one with familiarity; to my ears Dohnányi takes things a bit further in this piece than he is often given credit for. Hamelin and the Takács certainly make the most of its subtle charms in this delicious account.

The disc presents the three works in chronological order, with the String Quartet No 2 of 1906 dividing the two quintets. Weirdly it’s in D flat major – the only quartet I’m familiar with that shares this key is Shostakovich’s inscrutable Quartet No 12, op 133, although a web search reveals D’Indy’s third is also in D flat. Dohnányi’s is a busy, eventful work, certainly of its time, but absolutely not ‘old-fashioned’. The tiny slow introduction acts as a linking ritornello to connect the various threads of the agreeably tangy first movement. Hyperion’s sound has a delicious bloom, while the Takács’ engagement with this unfamiliar music is thorough and their affection for it blindingly obvious. If the ritornelli better enable the listener to navigate the movement, they arguably draw more attention to its slightly awkward, diffuse countenance. András Fejér ’s crisply bouncing cello leads the way in the surprisingly angular Presto acciaccato – there’s nothing hesitant in this spring-loaded, propulsive panel, whose sense of purpose is all too briefly paused for a gently pastel chorale-like interlude at its centre. Hearing this scherzo interestingly brought to mind the fast movements in Benjamin Britten’s three quartets –recorded a couple of years ago by this august group. I would be most interested to discover how many ‘innocent ears’ would correctly identify ‘early Dohnányi’ on encountering this intriguing music. A rather maudlin hymn-like theme kicks off the finale which proceeds in stately fashion until a brief intensification at 2:10. In due course a rather prickly animato section then recalls the spirit of the central movement and prefaces the return of the chorale idea before the coda synthesises the main ideas from the whole piece. The lovely playing does not completely conceal Dohnányi’s occasional structural awkwardness in this finale although it vividly projects its moments of excitement and builds convincingly to its enigmatic close.

Listeners will struggle to find fault in any of these outstanding performances or in Hyperion’s inviting sonics – as for the three pieces themselves, there is far more in the way of stylistic, harmonic and structural contrast between them than one with only a vague knowledge of Dohnányi may have been conditioned to expect. Those with the Schubert Ensemble disc can rest assured they can ‘stick’ and need only ‘twist’ if they are curious about the second quartet, which is certainly worth knowing; for everybody else the new disc is self-recommending.

Richard Hanlon

Previous reviews: Chris Ramsden ~ David Barker



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