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Hyperion Records

APR7038 - Dohnányi: Dohnányi plays Dohnányi

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: February 2004
Total duration: 135 minutes 45 seconds

Dohnányi: Dohnányi plays Dohnányi
The complete HMV solo piano recordings, 1929-1956
Pastorale 'Hungarian Christmas Song'  [4'33]  Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)  recorded 23 November 1929
Waltz from Delibes' Coppélia  [4'24]  Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)  recorded 23 November 1929
No 1: Impromptu: Andante espressivo e rubato  [3'11]  recorded 18 November 1946
No 2: Scherzino: Allegretto con mosso  [2'00]  recorded 18 November 1946
No 3: Canzonetta: Andante rubato  [1'55]  recorded 18 November 1946
No 4: Cascades: Il più presto possible  [2'30]  recorded 18 November 1946
No 5: Ländler: Tempo giusto, scherzando  [1'58]  recorded 18 November 1946
No 6: Cloches: Andante con moto, mesto  [4'20]  recorded 18 November 1946
Widmung  [1'44]  recorded September 1956
Marsch der lustigen Brüder  [3'08]  recorded September 1956
An Ada  [1'13]  recorded September 1956
Freund Viktor's Mazurka  [2'48]  recorded September 1956
Sphärenmusik  [5'10]  recorded September 1956
Valse aimable  [1'41]  recorded September 1956
Um Mitternacht  [1'54]  recorded September 1956
Tolle Gesellschaft  [2'21]  recorded September 1956
Morgengrauen  [3'00]  recorded September 1956
Postludium  [1'23]  recorded September 1956
Theme: Rubato  [0'43]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 1: Dolce, legato  [0'44]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 2: Vivace  [0'33]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 3: Andante  [1'05]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 4: Vivace  [0'27]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 5: Tranquillo  [1'17]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 6: Leggiero  [0'42]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 7: Allegro  [0'11]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 8: Vivace  [0'12]  recorded 29 August 1956
Variation 10: Andante rubato  [2'35]  recorded 29 August 1956
No 3: Intermezzo: Sostenuto, con espressione  [6'05]  recorded 29 August 1956
No 6: Adagio non troppo  [6'23]  recorded 29 August 1956
Gavotte and Musette in B flat  [3'12]  Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)  recorded 12 September 1956
No 3a: Pavane: Allegretto, quasi andante  [0'48]  recorded 3 September 1956
No 3b: Variation 1: Dolce  [0'52]  recorded 3 September 1956
No 3c: Variation 2: Poco più mosso  [0'48]  recorded 3 September 1956
No 3d: Variation 3: Scherzando  [0'45]  recorded 3 September 1956
No 3e: Variation 4: Meno mosso, ma agitato  [0'42]  recorded 3 September 1956
No 3f: Variation 5: Tranquillo  [1'01]  recorded 3 September 1956
Prelude: Allegro  [2'35]  recorded 12 September 1956
Allemande: Andante espressivo  [2'30]  recorded 12 September 1956
Courante: Vivace  [1'12]  recorded 12 September 1956
Sarabande: Adagio  [3'40]  recorded 12 September 1956
Menuet: Allegretto  [3'24]  recorded 12 September 1956
Gigue: Presto  [1'25]  recorded 12 September 1956
No 1: Impromptu: Andante espressivo e rubato  [2'43]  recorded 28 August 1956
No 2: Scherzino: Allegretto con mosso  [2'04]  recorded 28 August 1956
No 3: Canzonetta: Andante rubato  [1'52]  recorded 28 August 1956
No 4: Cascades: Il più presto possible  [2'51]  recorded 28 August 1956
No 5: Ländler: Tempo giusto, scherzando  [1'53]  recorded 28 August 1956
No 6: Cloches: Andante con moto, mesto  [4'14]  recorded 28 August 1956
Burletta: Allegro  [2'29]  recorded 12 September 1956
Nocturne (Cats on the Roof): Andante  [3'31]  recorded 12 September 1956
Valses nobles D969  [6'40]  Franz Schubert (1797-1828), arr. Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)  recorded 9 September 1956

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Dohnányi the pianist
‘Dohnányi was born in Pressburg, Hungary, July 27, 1877. He first studied music with his father, a professor of mathematics at the gymnasium there and a gifted amateur cellist, but afterwards he became a pupil in pianoforte and composition of Carl Förstner, organist at Pressburg Cathedral.’

Those first two sentences could begin almost any entry on the life of Dohnányi, but they would overlook something important. In 1877 Pressburg was one of the most musical cities in Europe. To Hungarians the place was always known as Pozsónyi, the coronation city. For three hundred years it had been the capital of Hungary, and the Hungarian kings had been crowned there. The Hungarian legislature had also held its sessions there. In the nineteenth century it was a vibrant place brimming with music, and it was invariably included in the concert tours of the greatest performing artists. How fortunate for Dohnányi that he was born there! He soaked up the history and the culture of his native city like a sponge. It was a loss that he would have felt most keenly when, at the Treaty of Trianon, after World War One, the victorious British, French, and American politicians redrew the map of Europe and gave Pozsónyi to the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, which promptly renamed the city Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

In 1894, when he was only 17 years old, Dohnányi moved to Budapest and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music (later to become known as the Liszt Academy), where he became a pupil of István Thomán for piano and of Hans Koessler for composition. Thomán had been a pupil of Franz Liszt (he was actually a pallbearer at Liszt's funeral), while Koessler was a follower of Brahms. It was an interesting combination of influences, and throughout his life Dohnányi reflected them both – Liszt in his piano playing, Brahms in his composing. Hitherto, gifted young Hungarian musicians had gone abroad in pursuit of their higher studies. Dohnányi was the first major Hungarian musician to prefer Budapest and the Academy; and his decision influenced both Kodály and Bartók who followed him to the Academy as well. When Dohnányi arrived in Budapest, he brought with him more than sixty compositions in his portfolio, many of which he later discarded. But in 1897 one of them, a symphony in F major, was awarded the King’s Prize. In a letter dated 10 June 1897, the 19-year-old Dohnányi addressed a special request to the Directorate of the Academy. He asked permission to skip the rest of his studies and take the final examinations, both as a composer and as a pianist, in order to obtain his artist’s diploma immediately. Permission was granted and he passed with flying colours. His graduation concert took place six days later, and included a performance of Liszt’s operatic paraphrase on Mozart’s Don Giovanni – a telling indication of the young man’s ability at the keyboard.

What to do next? And where to go? Such questions afflict many young music graduates. Dohnányi followed his star as a pianist. After a few lessons with Eugene d’Albert, another student of Liszt, he made his debut in Berlin in 1897 and was at once recognised as an artist of the highest distinction. Similar success in Vienna followed. He made his London debut at a Hans Richter concert in the Queen’s Hall, where he gave a memorable performance of Beethoven’s G major Concerto. Dohnányi was still only nineteen years old. The following year he undertook some concerts in America. When he returned home, it was as the most celebrated Hungarian musician since Franz Liszt.

During the next few years Dohnányi established himself as one of Europe’s leading concert pianists. He was readily compared with his great contemporaries Rachmaninov, Paderewski, and Friedman. Although still in his twenties, he was appearing with major orchestras across Europe and the United States – including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and St. Louis. His repertoire at this time included a lot of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, and the three concertos he played most frequently at this time were Beethoven’s Fourth, Brahms’s Second, and his own Piano Concerto in E minor. Soon he would be playing complete cycles of all the Beethoven Sonatas and all the Mozart Piano Concertos – for which he wrote a number of cadenzas, the manuscripts of which are kept in the Dohnányi Collection at Florida State University.

In 1905, he accepted an invitation from the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim and moved to Berlin as Head of Piano at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, a position he held for ten years. Because of complications in his personal life, he resigned his post in 1915 and returned to Budapest. It was a major turning-point in his career. The period that followed World War One can only be described as Dohnányi’s ‘golden years’. He gave more than 120 recitals and concerts a year – solo recitals, chamber music concerts, and concertos. In 1920, Béla Bartók was able to write: ‘Musical life in Budapest today may be summed up in one name – Dohnányi’. Although he was always best known as a pianist, after his return to Budapest he became increasingly active as a conductor and as an administrator. By the mid 1930s he was the most powerful man in the musical life of his country: he was the Director of the Liszt Academy, the conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Head of Music for Hungarian Radio. Along with all these activities he also composed – a role that was central to him, and by which he will best be remembered. He created works in all the forms – symphonies, operas, chamber music, songs, and above all piano music, some of which is technically among the most challenging to come out of the twentieth-century.

Dohnányi was one of those pianists who were entirely at home on the concert platform. There are certain artists who undergo a kind of purgatory before walking onto the stage. They live their lives in almost perpetual agony, fearing they will play badly, have a memory lapse, lose muscular co-ordination, and so forth. These artists are elated only when they walk off the platform. Dohnányi was the opposite. He was elated to be on the platform. He was like a fish in water, someone in his natural element. What matter if he sometimes failed to give of his best? What matter if he had an occasional memory lapse? He was musician enough to improvise his way out of it. Nothing could stop the sheer joy of making music and communicating that joy to his audiences. And his audiences, particularly the Hungarian ones in the 1920s and 30s, adored him.

First there was his fabulous tone-quality, which made the piano sing. Then there was his composer’s grasp of musical structure, which prompted him to lay out the details of a Beethoven sonata like a map. Finally, there was his innate ability to turn his interpretations into a form of mass communication. Not for him the secret performance almost ashamed to be heard, which turns the audience into eavesdroppers, or worse, voyeurs. The moment he walked onto the platform you were aware of a musician presiding at the piano, and the only reason he was there was to give you pleasure and musical enlightenment.

Dohnányi’s playing was always marked by technical brilliance, a bel canto line (one is never in doubt where the melody lies), generous pedalling, and a well-nourished tone – which even the technical imperfections of his early recordings do little to diminish. One of his main expressive tools was tempo rubato (and its first cousin, the agogic accent) which he used to telling effect in his interpretations of Romantic composers. Above all, Dohnányi was a master of the nuance. He had few connections to the ‘blood and thunder’ school of piano-playing. His occasional departures from the printed text, while they may worry the modern scholar, evoke an old-world charm and mark him as a child of his time.

Dohnányi’s ability to sight-read from full orchestral score was legendary, as were his capacities to improvise and transpose instantly from one key to another. He also had a phenomenal memory, and his pupils tell of him being able to sit down and play works he had not touched for years. Louis Kentner told me that he once witnessed a sight-reading contest in the 1930s between Dohnányi and another musician. Dohnányi looked through the unfamiliar manuscript and asked: ‘Into what key would you like it transposed?’ Whereupon his adversary resigned. Antal Dorati (a nephew of Dohnányi’s first wife, Elsa Kunwald) likewise related to me that while Dohnányi was not yet in his teens he sight-read the first movement of the newly published score of Brahms’s Sonata in G major for violin and piano. Later that same day the boy played it from memory.

Perhaps Dohnányi relied too much on these gifts in later life, but what gifts to possess! They place him squarely in the tradition of Franz Liszt, who possessed them in even greater measure. It is perhaps not generally known that when Liszt became the first Director of the newly established Royal Hungarian Academy of Music in 1875, he was able to set up the first curriculum. He insisted that all composers take piano lessons, and all pianists take composition lessons. The entrance exams contained tests in sight-reading, sight-singing, memory-work, and improvisation. Those students who failed were shown the door. This was the environment in which the young Dohnányi flourished. It was the Oneness of music that mattered, not its separate parts.

Even though everything at the keyboard was easy for Dohnányi, he nonetheless spent a lot of time reflecting on the difficulties experienced by students facing technical problems. His fingerings are revelatory, and his ‘Daily Exercises’ for pianists (meant to save time with a fifteen minute workout at the beginning of each practice session) are still widely used and have become legendary. The piano aficionado cannot afford to overlook these Exercises; and Dohnányi’s Preface, with its absorbing ideas on how to practice, will give him a bonus.

‘In most music schools’, Dohnányi writes, ‘keyboard instruction suffers from far too much exercise material being given to the student for his purely technical development – the many hours of daily practice involved being out of all proportion to the results obtained … Not enough time is left for the study of repertory pieces … Therefore, before all else, the number of studies must be reduced, and this can only be done without creating harm if they are replaced with exercises which, in lesser time, bring forth the same benefits.’

It is an indication of his interest in the mechanics of piano playing that Dohnányi had the firm of Bösendorfer make two specially designed pianos for him with semicircular keyboards. One he kept in his studio at the Academy; the other he kept at home. He practiced on them for about two years during the early thirties. The practical advantage of such an unusual piano is that no matter where the fingers are placed on the keyboard the distance between the shoulder and the hand always remains the same. The arms naturally describe an arc, so why not match them to a semicircular keyboard? Dohnányi abandoned this piano when he had to play a Mozart concerto in public on a normal keyboard, and found that he could not adjust to it in time.

In the turmoil of the post-war years, Dohnányi’s career, like those of many artists, came to temporary halt. He lived for a time in Austria, and then moved to Buenos Aires, where concerts had been arranged for him. His manager was incompetent and many of the engagements evaporated. But by 1949 things were going more smoothly, especially in the American mid West, and as a result of those immensely successful concerts he was appointed Artist in Residence and Head of Piano at Florida State University, Tallahassee, a post he held for eleven years, until his death in 1960. Because he was already 72 years old at the time of the appointment, we are told that Karl Kuersteiner, the Dean of the School of Music, had to go to the State Legislature to persuade them to pass a bill to enable Dohnányi to teach, because he was already past the State’s mandatory retirement age. Years earlier Kuersteiner had studied the violin at the Liszt Academy, and he was well aware that he was making history by bringing Dohnányi to Florida. The legislature passed that bill in time for Dohnányi to begin his professorial duties in the Fall Semester of 1949. Dohnányi’s starting salary was $5000 a year. Since he had joined the faculty at such an advanced age, he was not entitled to a pension.

In 1956 Dohnányi made a triumphal return to Britain (a country where he had always enjoyed great success before the War). He appeared at the Edinburgh Festival with Sir Adrian Boult and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and he also made some memorable gramophone records in London for EMI. He died on February 9, 1960, while recording some late Beethoven sonatas in New York, and is buried in Tallahassee. Dohnányi today is recognised along with Bartók and Kodály as one of Hungary’s great twentieth-century triumvirate.

Dohnányi and His Master’s Voice
Ernst von Dohnányi’s first HMV recordings were made in November 1929, his last date from August and September 1956. From this rich treasury comes the present anthology: Dohnányi’s complete solo piano recordings of his own music, both original compositions and transcriptions. The majority are making their first appearance on CD, some are published for the first time.

This particular chapter in Dohnányi’s exceptionally diverse life began in 1928 with a suggestion from the Austrian branch of HMV to London Head Office that Dohnányi be invited to record ‘a pot-pourri of Hungarian Folk songs even if we have to pay as high as £100’. Late in the following year London were able to advise their European territories that Hungarian HMV had not only recorded Bartók and Hubay in their own music but that Dohnányi also had made some ‘excellent records’. Amounting to six sides in all, the Pastorale, described by HMV as a ‘Magyar tone-poem’, was coupled with the Delibes Coppélia waltz transcription. (The remaining four sides, recorded the previous day, comprised Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Dohnányi’s only HMV solo recording of another composer’s music. Incidentally, more or less contemporaneous with these HMV titles, are recordings Dohnányi made for a Hungarian label, variously named Electron and Eternola, selected sides of which subsequently appeared on Edison Bell.)

Dohnányi’s next recordings were made in London during February 1931. For UK Columbia, the company responsible for Dohnányi’s debut orchestral recording, a 1928 interpretation of Mozart’s Concerto in G major, K.453, he recorded his Nursery Variations. To HMV’s catalogue he contributed the two now celebrated J. Strauss transcriptions.

It was not until 1946 that Dohnányi again set foot in the studio, this time to record his Six Piano Pieces Op.41 written in Austria the previous year. Exactly what prompted HMV’s invitation to record repertoire which in no way could be regarded as ‘commercial’ during a period of biting austerity is unknown, save that Dohnányi had mentioned his new suite in a conversation he had had earlier that year with David Bicknell, manager of HMV’s Classical Division. The records were easily made, quickly approved and scheduled for release on HMV’s ‘domestic’ plum (as opposed to its ‘international’ red) label. That they failed to appear was the result of an oversight – a letter of agreement between artist and company on the completion of recording had not been signed. By the time this had been rectified, in late 1948, magnetic recording tape was in wide use hence HMV’s decision to rerecord the work at a future date for LP release. This 1946 recording is here published for the first time. (Due to the confines of the 78 rpm disc Dohnányi was obliged to reorder the movements so that they could be accommodated across four sides. They are presented here in their correct sequence.)

When Dohnányi settled in the USA in 1949 David Bicknell might have assumed that the pianist’s HMV career was at an end – especially when Dohnányi’s next recordings appeared on the US Columbia label. However, when Andrew Schulhof, Dohnányi’s thrusting agent in the USA, drew up plans for an ambitious European tour in the summer of 1956 he had HMV and London firmly in his sights. He suggested to Bicknell that HMV should avail itself of the opportunity to record the by now Grand Old Man whilst he was in Europe and proposed two works: the Nursery Variations and the Second Piano Concerto. Bicknell, predominantly European based and thus out of touch with Dohnányi’s pianistic prowess, enquired of RCA (then HMV’s sister company) whether Dohnányi ‘could still play … I have seen some very good reviews recently, so perhaps he can!’ The reply was more than favourable and within a short while HMV had agreed with Dohnányi’s UK agents Ibbs & Tillett, both recording dates and fee (a handsome sum for the time and obviously an indication of the high regard in which he was held). There loomed just one potential stumbling block: such was the American Federation of Musicians’s stranglehold on the music industry at this time that Dohnányi was obliged to seek permission to record his own compositions on the other side of the Atlantic!

It was in his letter informing Bicknell that the AFM’s agreement had been secured that Schulhof first floated the idea that Dohnányi also record some solo pieces when in London. HMV entertained the idea especially when they learnt that Dohnányi would, after all, not be visiting other European countries and so would be in the UK for the duration. Although the repertoire for a two LP project was not finalised until less than two weeks prior to recording, it neatly surveys the range of Dohnányi’s work for keyboard, from the Brahmsian lyricism of such early works as the Intermezzo Op.2/3 to the Bartókian ‘bite’ of the late Burletta Op.44/1. The ever practical and considerate David Bicknell, aware both of Dohnányi’s advanced age and heavy UK schedule, considered it ‘unwise to have more than one session a day’. Other solicitous touches included requests that Dohnányi be chauffeured from London Airport to the Cumberland Hotel in central London and that the studios arrange for a selection of pianos to be made available prior to recording – ‘he likes a piano with a light action’.

Aware of the kudos of what was now a three LP ‘composer plays’ project, HMV decided to record all the Dohnányi sessions in experimental stereo, this to run in tandem with standard monaural recording. With commercial stereo recording at this time in its infancy, the conditions under which the stereo tape machinist worked were less than ideal. Significantly he had no visual contact with the main studio which could result in announcements being made over the start of a movement or the machine prematurely running out of tape. Additionally, no stereo recordings were made on 29th August, the most productive day of the solo piano project, due, it would appear, to a technical breakdown. Despite such setbacks the stereo tapes are here being used for the first time, primarily because they graphically convey Dohnányi’s individual tonal palette, from the brightest primary colour to the subtlest half hues. All non-stereo material is taken from the edited mono masters. (While working on the unedited stereo tapes I discovered that when recording the Suite Op.24 Dohnányi could not resist launching into the opening bars of the ensuing movement before breaking off to record a further take. This ‘attacca approach’ has been honoured despite the absence of such markings in the score. I should also mention that there was but a single stereo take of both the Sarabande and Menuet movements. I took the decision to keep the stereo versions of these movements rather than revert to mono merely for the sake of removing the occasional minor finger slip.)

When Dohnányi approved the mono tapes he was invited to pen the accompanying annotation. Although he agreed, nothing was forthcoming save for the following (as he quaintly put it) explanation. ‘The Valses nobles are not a paraphrase but a virtuous arrangement of the Schubert Waltzes for concert performances. Few of the original waltzes are left out.’

David Bicknell’s aim was to have the orchestral disc on sale in time for Dohnányi’s 80th birthday on 27th July 1957, a target missed by a couple of months due to the fact that the summer was (as it remains) a fallow period for the record industry. The solo piano LPs were released in February of the following year. Unfortunately the fruits of this intensive collaboration between pianist/composer and recording company met with an indifferent response in the UK – not one of the three LPs achieved a respectable sales figure. To make matters worse there was no release in the USA: EMI and RCA had just parted company and EMI’s new American outlet, Angel Records, were rushing to establish themselves via stereo recordings of mainstream repertoire. Only now, almost a half century later, are we able to evaluate these recordings and discern their historic and musical significance.

Alan Walker & Bryan Crimp © 2003

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