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Dohnanyi concertos C5463
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Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Variations on a Nursery Song for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25 (1913-14) [25:53]
Concertino for Harp and Chamber Orchestra, Op. 45 (1952) [15:16]
Konzertstück in D major for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 12 (1903-04) [26:57]
Sofja Gülbadamova (piano)
Silke Aichhorn (harp)
Andrei Ioniţă (cello)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Modestas Pitrėnas
rec. 2021, Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany
CAPRICCIO C5463 [68:14]

This is the second disc I have reviewed in an ongoing series for Capriccio of works by Ernst von Dohnányi, a conservative composer who wrote many delightful pieces that are not performed or recorded as frequently as they deserve. The earlier CD contains the Overture to Tante Simona, Suite in F sharp minor, and the American Rhapsody, along with some music of fellow Hungarian Leó Weiner (review). I found much to like there and this recording is no less impressive.

More than anything else, Dohnányi is known for the Variations on a Theme of a Nursery Song. It has not been blessed with a surfeit of recordings, but there have been a few outstanding ones. I reviewed an excellent account by pianist Eldar Nebolsin with the Buffalo Philharmonic on Naxos a number of years ago and this one by Sofja Gülbadamova is every bit its equal. In general, the main difference is in the sound and dynamic range. The Capriccio has secured a more open sound with wider dynamics, so that the timpani thwack after the portentous introduction practically knocks you off your feet. Otherwise, it’s a case of swings and roundabouts in the two accounts. Both pianists have the measure of the music with Gülbadamova at times sharper and brighter, as in the statement of the nursery tune where she plays with less legato than Nebolsin. On the other hand, I slightly prefer the Buffalo Philharmonic horns that are more martial in the second variation. In both performances the strings have sufficient warmth, say in the Brahmsian third variation, but could also have greater presence. This I think has more to do with the recorded balance than the performances themselves. One would like to hear more of the delightful orchestral score throughout, while the piano solo is given due prominence. However, the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie excel in the bassoon parts, as they sound out clearly most notably in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like Variation 9. I still prefer the Buffalo xylophone in that variation where the German counterpart is blurred. The tenth variation’s Richard Straussian passacaglia is done equally well in both accounts, the difference being a more integrated piano with the orchestra for Nebolsin/Falletta and a more soloistic one for Gülbadamov/ Pitrėnas. Again the bassoons are terrific in the finale in this new account but also clear enough in the earlier one where everything is kept light on its feet, Falletta providing a whirlwind conclusion. The ending for Pitrėnas is more deliberate, kept in tempo, but powerful all the same. As I noted, there is much to like in both of these performances.

Two other concerted pieces that complete the CD are quite rare in the concert hall and on recordings. This was my first exposure to the Harp Concertino and it has left a positive impression. Works for harp and orchestra are hardly thick on the ground and so this one is a most welcome addition to the discography. It begins with beautiful harp glissandos with woodwinds accompanying, the chamber-orchestra scoring providing necessary transparency. Furthermore the themes are memorable, hauntingly so at times. Though the first movement is marked Andante, it is livelier than that would indicate. It leads directly into a light-hearted scherzo with woodwinds and an especially bucolic bassoon before another attacca. Then the finale commences with a harp arpeggio partnered with solo oboe. This movement, unconventionally, is slower in tempo than the first two and captivates with its Romantic theme, really a song tinged with melancholy. The concertino concludes with the harp and quiet timpani beats. It is a late work, particularly as compared with the others on the disc, yet shows no sign of diminishing creativity on the composer’s part. The Harp Concertino is a lovely piece and receives a first-rate performance in every respect.

The Konzertstück for Cello and Orchestra, Dohnányi composed before the Nursery Variations, has received a number of performances on disc. The one that acquainted me with the work is Raphael Wallfisch’s with the London Symphony under Mackerras on Chandos, which I have not heard in years. I never appreciated it much then, but find more to like now. Like the Harp Concertino, the Konzertstück is in three connected movements and are separated by soft timpani strokes. This songful, Schumannesque composition lacks the variety of the harp work, say nothing of the Variations on a Nursery Song. Yet it comes to life particularly in the third movement, where shortly before the 1:00 mark some ostinatos in the strings and brass presage the style of Janáček, and later builds up with Straussian grandeur. The main theme of the piece returns before the Konzertstück ends quietly with clarinet and cello over those beats from the timpani. Young Romanian cellist Andrei Ioniţă clearly has the measure of the music and the orchestra excels in its accompanying role.

While I would not necessarily recommend this for those uninitiated to Dohnányi’s orchestral music - the Buffalo Philharmonic/Falletta disc contains the more interesting programme - anyone seeking these three works will not be disappointed with these accounts. The liner notes by Christian Heidl provide more than sufficient information on the pieces and the performers, and are translated into idiomatic English by Jens F. Laurson.

Leslie Wright

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