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Hyperion Records

CDA66786 - Dohnányi: Piano Quintets & Serenade
A Landscape with the Manor of Vognserup (1847) by Johan Thomas Lundbye (1818-1848)

Recording details: March 1995
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: July 1996
Total duration: 75 minutes 43 seconds

'Fresh, vital and spirited performances' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A clear three-star recommendation' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Soaring performances … a stunning recording … this disc is easily recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'This excellent group plays with calm confidence throughout and features some notably silvery violin tone. A delightful disc' (Hi-Fi News)

Piano Quintets & Serenade
Allegro  [8'23]
Scherzo (Vivace)  [4'36]
Rondo (Finale)  [4'27]

Ernö Dohnányi is the least celebrated of the seminal triumvirate of twentieth-century Hungarian composers; Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók have become household names, yet Dohnányi's posthumous fame hangs upon an unrepresentative handful of compositions. This recording brings together three of his finest chamber works; the two masterful yet hugely contrasting Piano Quintets, and his remarkable essay in that most underutilized of instrumental genres, the string trio.

The Serenade in C for string trio falls within the direct lineage of models in the genre by Mozart and Beethoven, yet proves a decisive watershed for Dohnányi himself, fully articulating his nationally infused mature style for the first time. The Piano Quintets reflect an enduring and deep-rooted regard for both Brahms and Schumann, and even Mendelssohn.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ernö Dohnányi is the least celebrated of the seminal triumvirate of twentieth-century Hungarian composers; Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók have become household names, yet Dohnányi’s posthumous fame hangs upon an unrepresentative handful of compositions. This recording brings together three of his finest chamber works; the two masterful and yet hugely contrasting quintets for piano and strings, and his remarkable essay in that most mistrusted and underutilized of instrumental media, the string trio. Dohnányi’s Serenade in C for string trio fell within the direct lineage of models in the genre by Mozart and Beethoven, yet proved a decisive watershed, fully articulating his nationally infused mature style for the first time. The Piano Quintets, whilst certainly no less accomplished, reflected an enduring and deep-rooted regard for both Brahms and Schumann, and even Mendelssohn. A distinguished conductor, Dohnányi (who revitalized the national identity of Hungarian music after World War I more or less single-handedly) earned universal renown as a formidably gifted virtuoso pianist, regarded by many as the finest that country produced in the post-Lisztian epoch.

Ernö (Ernst von) Dohnányi was born on 27 July 1877, the son of a respected amateur cellist of some influence in the musical circles of his native town of Pozsony, scarcely the equal of Budapest or Prague but home, nonetheless, to many capable, if unrecognized musicians. Ernö received early instruction from his father (a kindly, if persistent disciplinarian who recognized the need for solid theoretical grounding) and from the Cathedral organist of Pozsony, Károly Forstner, who supervised the young Dohnányi’s piano tuition until he graduated from the city’s public Gymnasium, his general education completed. Undeterred by a lack of professional tutelage, Dohnányi’s insatiable appetite for all things musical (he had already developed a phenomenal piano technique) naturally impelled him towards a period of formal study at the Academy of Music in Budapest (where he was later joined on the same course by Bartók; the two had known each other since childhood), from which he graduated with honours in 1897.

His professors at the Budapest Academy included Thomán and Koessler, though he became a disciple of the influential and charismatic Eugen d’Albert (an archetypal late Romantic piano virtuoso) in his graduation year, spending the summer months working with d’Albert whilst preparing for his professional debut. A year later (in 1898), having attracted the support of the conductor Hans Richter, Dohnányi’s immediate destiny as an itinerant piano virtuoso was assured by a triumphant London debut at which he performed the G major Piano Concerto (No 4), Op 58, by Beethoven, a composer with whom he felt a lifelong spiritual affinity. Dohnányi’s C minor Piano Quintet, the first of almost seventy early works (very few of which merited his rebuke as worthless apprentice efforts) he considered worthy of an opus number, had been completed four years previously; chronology shows it, therefore, to be a student work, yet Brahms endorsed his enthusiasm for the piece by arranging for it to be played in Vienna soon after the premiere, given in Budapest in 1895.

The Piano Quintet in C minor, Op 1, is a work of exacting technical prowess, revealing in each of its four movements a temperamental audacity and prodigality of invention far surpassing our normal expectations of any early opus. The work has few direct parallels beyond its apparent sympathies with the Piano Quintets of Schumann and Brahms, but the heady frisson of passions which drives the music forward from the outset is imbued with the invulnerability of youth, as yet little tempered by the burden of experience brought by full maturity. The opening Allegro begins as the piano sets out the broad, ardently mobile first subject idea, which will return to crown the entire work in the coda of the Finale. The strings develop the opening motif in a majestically sonorous, striding unison (if any caveat can be levelled at the Quintet, it might be that Dohnányi’s search for near-orchestral weight of tone leans too persistently on straightforward unison scoring for the string group), which gives way to the cello’s announcement of the relaxed second theme of the exposition. The mood is spacious; broad paragraphs flow majestically towards the beginning of the development, at once more urgent and impulsive, as the strings introduce a tense stretto punctuated by fugal fragments of the first subject, debated over a pulsating piano accompaniment. Roles are reversed as the piano takes over the primary material, supported this time by an uneasily fractured string figure, passed between violins and cello, as mounting rhythmic and harmonic pressures anticipate a massive climax. The recapitulation follows with a jubilant and declamatory unison reprise of the main theme. The coda is supremely self-confident, bringing the movement full-circle in a blaze of tonic-key glory.

In the Scherzo, the spectre of a Bohemian ‘furiant’ is thinly concealed behind a brusque, enervated and palpably Brahmsian façade, counterpoised by gentler entreaties in the Trio of near-Schubertian grace and melodic richness. The coda deserves special attention, for it revisits and subtly combines seemingly irreconcilable elements of both Scherzo and Trio.

Had the Adagio been from Brahms’s pen, we would not hesitate to describe its mood as autumnal. But Dohnányi’s impulse was deeply personal, and the elegiac character of the principal idea, played by the viola, invests what follows with hushed, reflective poignancy, though the theme itself sounds lovelier still when entrusted to the cello in the closing paragraphs of the movement. The Adagio follows a simple A–B–A ground-plan; the second group brings another quasi-Schubertian idea, initially for strings alone, introduced after a breathtakingly effective modulation. The Finale, a strutting rondo in 5/4 time, takes as its theme a proud Magyar-inspired idea, and is prodigiously imaginative. Note, for example, the discursive fugal passage set in motion by the cello (also given the luxuriant secondary theme of the movement) and the clever use of imitative textures in the episode which follows. But stern academicism gives way once more to the rondo theme, now heard against the backdrop of a Viennese waltz. The coda brings back the opening theme of the entire work, played by the piano and followed immediately by the strings, in preparation for a grandiose reiteration of the Magyar motif. Dohnányi’s Opus 1 ends triumphantly; it could scarcely be otherwise.

The final years of the nineteenth century were for Dohnányi a period of consolidation and the advancement of an already prodigious reputation, now founded as much upon growing fame as a composer as his established renown as a concert pianist. 1899 brought a coveted Bösendorfer prize for his Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op 5, composed during 1897/8, and numerous appearances in the musical capitals of Europe and America.

A number of major works followed, including the String Quartet No 1 in A, Op 7, a superb though still largely neglected Cello Sonata in B flat minor, Op 8 (both date from 1899), and the impressive Symphony No 1 in D minor, Op 9 (1900/1). Yet the work frequently cited as Dohnányi’s first mature and wholly distinctive piece of chamber music explored one of the least patronized of all genres, the string trio. The Serenade in C major for violin, viola and cello, Op 10, was written in 1902. The string trio medium had enjoyed limited popularity during the eighteenth century, bringing works by Boccherini, Mozart, and Beethoven. Mozart’s great E flat Divertimento, K563 (1788), revealed, probably for the first time, the true potential of the form; not only does the work sound pure and complete, but its textures are full and wide-ranging, even without the second violin, and the music is characterized by a nobility and grandeur far exceeding usual expectations of the undemanding Divertimento idiom. Beethoven’s Op 3 and Op 9 Trios appeared before his early Opus 18 Quartets, in the years 1792 and 1798. His delightful Serenade in D, Op 8, was written in 1797 and contains five movements, complete with the obligatory set of variations. The early Romantic masters (there are string trios by Schubert, Hummel, and others) probably found the notion of string quartet senza second violin hard to accept; after all, how could such a combination convey the philosophical intentions of the post-Beethovenian epoch with any real credibility? Thus very few works for string trio emerged during the years which followed (Dvorák’s delightful Terzetto in C, Op 74, written in 1887, is a hybrid, since it requires two violins and viola), leaving the genre largely untended until the next century. Even then, saving rarities such as Max Reger’s String Trios in A minor, Op 77b, and D minor, Op 141b (1904 and 1915), and the Trio by Jean Françaix (1933), the literature is pitifully small.

In his Serenade in C for string trio Dohnányi provided a novel and stylish reworking of the Beethovenian ideal of the Serenade idiom, in a five-movement work of exuberant charm and beauty. The work begins with a March, un-repeated at the close, whereas in Beethoven’s Op 8 the players leave the room in prim, military order and to the theme which had announced their arrival. The second section, a Romance, is disarmingly lyrical and subtle, with evident care taken to allow each instrumental voice to function within its most effectively sonorous register. A mercurial Scherzo, fleet-footed and virtuosic, gives way to the expected Tema con variazioni, a mandatory component of the Classical serenade, and in Dohnányi’s hands ingeniously crafted and frequently offering unexpected harmonic and textural diversions of a very high degree of craftsmanship. Again, the melodic material is equitably shared between the three players before the movement (the longest of the five) reaches a particularly satisfying conclusion. The Finale again pays homage to Viennese Classicism, at least in that Dohnányi chooses to end his Serenade with a movement in rondo form. There any effective comparison with Mozart or Beethoven ends, for the Finale provides compelling evidence to show that Dohnányi’s Op 10 was his most original and distinctive chamber work thus far. The elasticity of thematic material and commanding manipulation of forces throughout the Serenade make it one of the most rewarding and fascinating of all exercises within this marginalized instrumental form.

In the years which followed, Dohnányi divided his time between frequent international tours and, throughout a decade commencing in 1905, fulfilled the varied obligations of a professorship at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, an appointment which came at the personal invitation of the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Their friendship had resulted from a mutual passion for chamber music; Dohnányi was among the first great piano virtuosi to perform the chamber literature regularly, and his championship of works by the great Classical masters did much to increase their currency and popularity. Whilst several of Dohnányi’s finest compositions (among them the piece which has become his universal calling-card, the Variations on a Nursery Theme for piano and orchestra, Op 25, and the outstanding Suite in F sharp minor, Op 19, possibly Dohnányi’s finest orchestral work) date from the Berlin years, it was his unstinting work in rebuilding Hungary’s native musical traditions which claimed most of his energies on his return to Budapest in 1915; he also maintained his academic post at the Berlin Hochschule as a visiting professor for the next three years.

Political life among the Slavic peoples was already locked in ferment and disarray by this time; Dohnányi, though fundamentally a non-aligned libertarian thinker, would himself be drawn into a maelstrom of hatred and recrimination from which his career would not completely recover. Under the aegis of the old, liberally minded and culturally enlightened Republican regime, Dohnányi masterminded a programme of reforms which aimed to breathe new life into Hungary’s battered musical consciousness, first through the many hundreds of concerts he conducted, frequently including premieres of ambitious contemporary works by the young vanguard of Hungarian composers (including Bartók, Kodály, Leó Weiner and others), and, after 1916, through his inspirational piano masterclasses at the Budapest Academy. But just nine months after his appointment to the directorship of the Academy, Hungary’s government fell, to be replaced by a repressive quasi-fascist regime to whom Dohnányi’s liberal viewpoint and reformist aspirations were anathema. In October 1919 the violinist Jenö Hubay succeeded him in Hungary’s pre-eminent musical post, one which carried with it a burden of responsibility far beyond the purely artistic and administrative. Not even an all-out strike by his professorial colleagues could reverse his dismissal, yet Dohnányi’s proselytizing efforts on behalf of Hungary’s music and musicians continued apace, regardless of vindictive and callous tirades against him in the fascist-manipulated press. As principal conductor and artistic director of Hungary’s leading symphony orchestra, that of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, Dohnányi (who was re-appointed to the post for twenty-five uninterrupted years!) continued to promote the works of Hungarian composers, often to the detriment of his own compositions, which were seldom performed in Hungary at the time. Indeed, as his biographer Balint Vázsonyi has suggested in his 1971 study of the composer’s life and works, Dohnányi’s own elevated code of professional ethics and his unstinting moral integrity were attributes which, in the eyes of many, made him culpable. Hungary’s political instability and the outspoken polemics of both right- and left-wing leaders gave little quarter to non-aligned and divergently opinionated intellectuals, particularly those who spoke openly of the impending catastrophe of communism.

The Piano Quintet in E flat minor, Op 26, dates from 1914 and is distanced from its predecessor by almost exactly two decades. Though slimmer in proportion (in three rather than four movements, with the conventional Scherzo and slow movement replaced by an Intermezzo), the work is more intense and emotionally concentrated than either of its companions recorded here. A glance at Dohnányi’s output reveals that the Quintet emerged hard on the heels of his Variations on a Nursery Theme and the Suite in the Olden Style for piano solo, Op 24. Although written in close proximity, all three works present an unusual polarization of styles, though Dohnányi’s musical language was rarely so dramatically charged as in the case of his second Piano Quintet, an undisputed masterpiece of his maturity.

The work was written during the summer and early autumn of 1914, mainly in Berlin where it was first performed on 12 November by the Klinger Quartet with the composer at the piano. Its volatility and urgency reflected Dohnányi’s innate response to the rapidly enveloping turmoil of the period, though in no sense is the work other than wholly abstract in form; indeed, much of its harmonic language is remarkably progressive, and its unique coloration owes something to both the languorous exoticism of Debussy and the radicalism of Schoenberg. But Dohnányi wears modernism with discretion, and even a superficial comparison of his two piano quintets will highlight the depth and gravity, not to mention the greater economy and lucidity of Op 26 to immediate advantage.

The work opens in an atmosphere of unsettling mystery as the strings give out a foreboding low-register idea against a hushed piano accompaniment. The main first subject of this Allegro non troppo (which has echoes, surely, of Rachmaninov) is elastic and powerful, its inner tensions deliberately repressed, though made more public and palpable when developed fully after the viola’s triplet figure anticipates a new episode, in which the piano becomes the dominant and heroic protagonist. A new subsidiary idea of more lyrical and expansive character is debated in increasingly chromatic dialogue between piano and strings, and the development section itself is remarkable for its concentration, though the music has assumed stronger nationalistic identity than noted previously, except perhaps in the Finale of Op 1. The recapitulation, too, is abrupt and thoroughly impassioned.

Although the traditional Scherzo and slow movement have been replaced by an Intermezzo, the weighty issues explored in the opening movement remain unresolved until addressed afresh in the Finale, and so the middle movement does not provide the psychological foil to the movements it appears to bridge. Instead, the restless atmosphere of the opening Allegro imbues the nostalgic, unmistakably Viennese gait of the Intermezzo with unexpected reserve, even as the viola gives out the principal theme of the movement. There follows a free exploration of this, and several other motifs, juxtaposing sinuously reflective material with passages of more assertive character, though existing anxieties are never deeply concealed.

The Finale opens with a sombre, slowly evolving canon announced by the cello and gradually developed contrapuntally by the other string voices, striking an immediately tragic and regretful note. The piano appears with a solemn and valedictorily charged chorale, and these two elements provide the core material for the entire movement. Free development involves the speeding up of the canonic theme from the start of the movement, and the seething complexity of Dohnányi’s scoring now fully reveals the modernism of this episode to full effect; the influence of Schoenberg’s style is plainly evident. But the tragic and pessimistic aspect of the music gives way to a mood of expansive optimism in a coda of splendid affirmation, all doubt being banished during the cathartically triumphant final pages of the work.

Dohnányi’s international career continued to develop and, far removed from the power struggles at home, his annual tours as pianist and conductor won him affectionate acclaim in the United States where, in 1927, he accepted the music directorship of the New York State Symphony Orchestra. He did, however, return to Budapest in 1928 to teach piano and composition, becoming musical director of Hungarian Radio three years later. The ’30s and ’40s brought personal torment and public censure; a succession of chronic maladies, some serious and prolonged, brought a decline in overseas appearances, whilst Dohnányi’s protests at anti-semitism hastened his resignation from the Budapest Academy in 1941. But he continued to excite the suspicion of the authorities through his unstinting loyalty to the large Jewish contingent within the Budapest Philharmonic, valiantly sustained until the orchestra was disbanded several months after German forces overran Hungary. Two years after the end of the war, Dohnányi was poised to revive his international career, only to be thwarted by family obligations which led to resettlement in Argentina (as head of the piano department of the faculty of music at the University of Tucuman) before becoming composer-in-residence and professor of piano at Florida State University, Tallahassee, in September 1949. He made his last appearance in the British Isles during the 1956 Edinburgh Festival, though his influence long continued to be felt through the work of several generations of musicians fortunate enough to have studied with him, among them Sir Georg Solti, pianists Annie Fischer and Geza Anda, and his own grandson, the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. Yet as Bartók noted, it was Dohnányi who gave back to his native Hungary its formerly proud musical heritage, placing other mens’ works before his own and probably sealing his own fate as a composer in the process.

Michael Jameson © 1996

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