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Hyperion Records

CDA67699 - Dohnányi & Janácek: Violin Sonatas
Three Trees (1965) by Emil Parrag (b1925)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: January 2009
Jerusalem Music Centre, Israel
Produced by Eric Wen
Engineered by Zvi Hirshler
Release date: April 2010
Total duration: 70 minutes 45 seconds

'Shaham and Erez give an excellent performance [Dohnányi Sonata], Shaham's seductive tone and elegant phrasing being well matched by Erez's sensitive touch. The Ruralia hungarica pieces show the composer's more nationalistic side but are still farily traditional in their approach to folk material. Shaham is in his element here—the brilliant final piece carefree and dashing in style, the preceding, improvisatory Andante rubato alla zingaresca graceful and stylish' (Gramophone)

'The strongly Brahmsian Sonata [Dohnányi] is given a warm and affectionate reading, the central variation movement imaginatively characterised with Shaham's honeyed tone proving an ideal foil for Arnon Erez's bold and dynamic piano playing. But it's the more folksy Ruralia hungarica that draws the most compelling performance, Shaham negotiating the challenging violin pyrotechnics of the outer movements with impressive powerhouse playing as well as delivering a wonderfully atmospheric Andante rubato alla Zingaresca' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Hagai Shaham gives a deliciously rich and eloquent account of Dohnányi's Violin Sonata … it is thrilling, captivating playing, joyous and tender … there are sumptuous moments in Janáĉek's Sonata, too, but this is darker stuff, and Shaham brings to it a gentle sensibility … the rapport between Shaham and Arnon Erez, itself a notable feature of the disc, is quite wonderful in the tricky ensemble and fractured discourse of this sonata' (The Strad)

Dohnányi & Janáček: Violin Sonatas
Vivace assai  [7'21]
Presto  [4'23]
Molto vivace  [2'03]
Con moto  [4'54]
Allegretto  [2'35]
Adagio  [4'26]

Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez have been enthusiastically acclaimed for their dazzling duo performances: their infectiously relaxed bravado and continual flexibility belying their impeccable ensemble. For their latest disc they turn to two composers who are seminal figures in the development of Eastern European music during the early twentieth century.

Dohnányi was one of the pivotal figures in Hungary’s musical life. He composed a number of significant pieces for the violin, including two violin concertos; his most important chamber work for violin and piano is the Violin Sonata in C sharp minor Op 21, composed in 1912. Dohnányi was by then thirty-five years of age, and the Sonata is a fully mature work showing his individual development of stylistic traits of Brahms and Liszt combined with a structural economy which reflects the close study of Brahms’s sonatas. Also recorded here is Dohnányi’s most overtly folk-influenced work, Ruralia hungarica, and a movement from his First Orchestral Suite, in F sharp minor Op 19, Romanza, arranged as a thoroughly idiomatic piece for violin and piano by Jascha Heifetz.

In the first days of World War I Dohnányi’s native Hungary was invaded by the Russian army, which seemed for a time to herald the end of Austrian dominance in the region. This portentous event provided the creative spark for Leoš Janácek’s Violin Sonata (his only surviving violin sonata; two very early ones he composed in Dresden and Vienna in 1880 are lost), at least according to Janácek himself. Other works by Janácek heard in this recital include early pieces from his student years, and an arrangement of the delicate mood study ‘A blown-away Leaf’ from the celebrated piano work On the Overgrown Path.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The Moravian Leoš Janácek and the Hungarian Erno Dohnányi are two of the seminal figures in the development of Eastern European music during the early twentieth century. Yet it was Janácek, the older man by a whole generation, who was in many respects the more forward-looking, original composer. Dohnányi represented rather an organic development of nineteenth-century stylistic trends, and he has often been seen as less important for his own works than as a forerunner and enabler for the more original achievements of his younger contemporaries Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, who drew more radical inspiration from Hungarian folk music. He was born in 1877 a mere thirty-five miles from Vienna, in the ancient Hungarian capital of Poszóny, then known as the Austro-Hungarian city of Pressburg (and now in Slovakia, where it is called Bratislava). He grew up in the shadow of Austro-German musical culture, typified by Brahms, and for a significant part of his career was known internationally by the German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnanyi. But he was equally conscious of the nationalist Hungarian traditions that had been cultivated by Liszt. In fact, no Hungarian musician since Liszt had been so versatile.

Dohnányi was a gifted composer and an internationally renowned virtuoso pianist, whose achievements included cycles of all the Beethoven piano works and all the Mozart piano concertos. His pupils included Annie Fischer, Géza Anda and Georg Solti. In the early 1900s he taught in Berlin, but moved to Budapest in 1915. Dohnányi became one of the pivotal figures in his country’s musical life, especially when Hungary gained its independence after the fall of the Austrian Empire in 1918. His teaching and playing were so influential that he became, in Bartók’s phrase, ‘the entire musical life of Hungary’. Personally apolitical, Dohnányi found it hard to steer a course through the many changes of regime in Hungary after 1918. He remained there during World War II, under fascist domination, and did what he could to protect Jewish musicians; but afterwards the new Communist authorities began a whispering campaign against him and he found it impossible to work. Aged seventy-two, he became an exile, spending his last decade teaching and performing in Argentina and the USA, where he settled as composer-in-residence at Florida State University.

Dohnányi was not unwilling to learn from Kodály and Bartók, as he showed in such works as Ruralia hungarica, but his personal idiom remained a more Romantic blend than theirs. He wrote much piano and chamber music, operas such as the once-celebrated comedy The Tenor (1927), symphonies and concertante pieces including the witty and still-renowned Variations on a Nursery Rhyme for piano and orchestra. He composed a number of significant pieces for the violin, including two violin concertos; his most important chamber work for violin and piano is the Violin Sonata in C sharp minor Op 21, composed in Berlin in 1912. Dohnányi was by then thirty-five years of age, and the Sonata is a fully mature work showing his individual development of stylistic traits of Brahms and Liszt combined with a structural economy which reflects the close study of Brahms’s sonatas. One of the most noticeable features of this passionate and lively music (there is no actual slow movement) is Dohnányi’s concern to establish thematic unity and interconnection across the three movements by means of variation and thematic reminiscence in order to bind the work into a unity.

The Allegro appassionato first movement opens with a somewhat anxious theme in C sharp minor which is then heard, in varied form, in the major. A sweeping second subject is fairly short-lived, most of the attention being given to the first group. This movement is sometimes described as a sonata form without development, but it would be truer to say that the exposition is followed by an elaborated counter-exposition which fulfils the roles of both development and recapitulation, with the second subject finally being allowed to expand in the coda, which replaces the restless, unsettled mood of most of the movement with a more serene, elegiac atmosphere, and ends softly. (The truncated form of this first movement will only find its completion in the finale.)

The ensuing Allegro ma con tenerezza, which begins with a simple, song-like theme distinguished by the octave leap of its first two notes, is part scherzo, part intermezzo in six clearly defined sections. Some of these could be regarded as dance-variations on the movement’s initial theme—section 2, for instance, is in a siciliano rhythm—though the fourth section, which hints at the rhythm of the csárdás, also reintroduces a form of the first movement’s first subject. The fifth section, with its strumming violin pizzicati, is more serenade-like, while the final section is a refined reworking of the movement’s initial theme.

The last movement, Vivace assai, opens dramatically with a call to attention from the violin (harking back to the initial cell of the first movement) and then pitches in to a lively, capering 3/8 music whose main theme is yet another, though cunningly disguised, variant of the first movement’s main subject. A lyrical contrasting section in A major introduces a gorgeous theme in the violin that is underpinned by a continuation of the rhythmic invention in the piano. The Vivace assai music returns, if anything more intense and driving to a climax. After this the motion subsides, and the coda turns out to be an abbreviated and somewhat sotto voce restatement of the first movement’s exposition, with the second subject having the quietly expressive last word.

While it is not difficult to detect ‘Hungarian’ traits (at least as Brahms would have understood them) in Dohnányi’s sonata, it contains no overt hint of Hungarian folk music. The most important work that he based on Hungarian folk sources is the group of four compositions entitled Ruralia hungarica which he published in 1924 as his opus 32. They have complex internal relations. Op 32a is a seven-movement suite for solo piano composed in 1923; he then arranged five of these movements as an orchestral suite, Op 32b (the best-known of the four works) that formed his contribution to the celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the merging of the cities of Buda and Pest as Budapest. Two further Ruralia hungarica compositions followed: Op 32c, for violin and piano, is partly a transcription of material in Opp 32a and 32b but has one entirely new movement; while Op 32d, for cello and piano, is based on that new movement and owes nothing to Opp 32a and 32b. Unusually for him, Dohnányi founded his Ruralia hungarica works on authentic Hungarian folksongs, chosen from a volume from Transylvania (which had been part of Hungary until ceded to Romania in 1920) that had been collected by Kodály and Bartók and also published as part of the Budapest celebrations.

The opening Presto is a transcription of the lively movement that comes second in both the solo piano and orchestral suites; likewise the concluding Molto vivace is an arrangement of the movement that stands as the finale in Opp 32a and 32b. Both of them function perfectly as virtuoso violin display pieces in this new instrumental context. The middle movement of Op 32c, however, is unrelated to the other Ruralia hungarica pieces. The designation ‘alla Zingaresca’ suggests that Dohnányi’s intention was to produce a piece in more traditional ‘Hungarian gypsy’ style, an interpretation that is borne out by the cimbalom imitations in the piano and the floridly rhapsodic violin-writing in this delicious movement, probably the romantic high-point of all Dohnányi’s violin compositions.

The orchestral version of Ruralia hungarica was also numbered as Dohnányi’s Orchestral Suite No 2. His First Orchestral Suite, in F sharp minor, Op 19, was composed in Berlin in 1909. Sometimes known as ‘Suite romantique’, it is an apotheosis of his post-Brahmsian style with exotic ‘Hungarian’ colouring, especially in the third movement, the Romanza, which the great Jascha Heifetz arranged as a thoroughly idiomatic piece for violin and piano. The somewhat ‘oriental’ melody of the outer sections is twice briefly interrupted by a hint of a livelier, but rather melancholy csárdás rhythm.

In the first days of World War I Dohnányi’s native Hungary was invaded by the Russian army, which seemed for a time to herald the end of Austrian dominance in the region. This portentous event provided the creative spark for Leoš Janácek’s Violin Sonata (his only surviving violin sonata; two very early ones he composed in Dresden and Vienna in 1880 are lost), at least according to Janácek himself. In fact the work’s genesis was more complicated than that. Certainly some of it was being sketched at the beginning of August 1914. But there is evidence that the Ballada which is now the second movement already existed as an independent piece by May of that year (it may even have been written in 1913), and it was published on its own during 1915. (It is sometimes suggested that the Ballada was resuscitated from the second of the lost 1880 sonatas, but though in character the movement is somewhat ‘earlier’ than the rest of the sonata there is no independent evidence for this, and plenty of features that would have been impossible in Janácek’s music of so early a date.)

The whole Sonata must have been provisionally finished as a four-movement work by October 1915, when Janácek suggested to the violinist Jaroslav Kocián that he could premiere it in a concert in Prague; but Kocián was doubtful about the feasibility of playing it and the performance did not occur. At this point the Ballada was the third movement, the second movement was the Adagio and there was a fast fourth movement, Con moto. In Autumn 1916 Janácek began revising the Sonata by writing a new fourth movement, an Allegro; in turn, this was itself rejected and the original finale rewritten (as an Allegretto) in 1920; all the other movements were revised to varying extents about the same time. Even then, it was only when the work was published in 1922 that the order of the movements was finally determined. Only the first movement retained its position throughout all these changes, though it was heavily revised: the Ballada now became the second movement, the Adagio (the second movement of the 1915 version) became the finale, while the (discarded, then rewritten) 1915 finale became the Allegretto third movement. In this definitive form the premiere was given at the Museum of Applied Arts in Brno on 24 April 1922 by the violinist František Kudlácek, with Janácek’s pupil Jaroslav Kvapil, better known as a composer, at the piano.

The Sonata is typical of the mature Janácek in its general style, in the way melodic fragments are tersely repeated and juxtaposed, with some of the quality of direct speech, and combined with accompanimental patterns that also repeat short rhythmic gestures. The first movement, with its dramatic opening on solo violin and agitated piano accompaniment, seems nearest to the ‘response to war’ that the composer identified as the primary impulse behind the work. The Ballada, with its long, lyrical main theme and songful, almost lullaby-like secondary melody, is among Janácvek’s most romantic inspirations, and is also remarkable for the range and delicacy of the piano textures that underpin the violin’s cantabile writing. The ensuing Allegretto, which probably functions more effectively as a scherzo than the finale it originally was, has echoes of folk music in its gypsy-like violin slides and Russian-sounding opening theme—very similar to the ‘troika’ music in Janácek’s almost contemporary opera Kát’a Kabanová. Its continuation is a pathetically broken melody, the opening theme then returning in quiet pizzicato before the reprise of the opening section. The slow finale attempts more sustained, elegiac melodic writing, at first on the piano but continually interrupted by short, urgent figures on muted violin; eventually the violin takes up the theme and carries it from its lowest to highest register.

As we have seen, in 1916 Janácek composed an Allegro for violin and piano as a replacement for the Sonata’s Allegretto, which was then the finale but was subsequently reinstated as the third movement. The Allegro remained unpublished until 1988: as can clearly be heard, though it opens quite differently to the Allegretto, it soon arrives at some of that movement’s main material (the gypsy slides and Russian-sounding theme), but develops these elements in a completely different fashion, eventually fading out as if its energy has been used up. It is a delightful movement in its own right, while giving the fascinating impression of a completely different take on one portion of the Sonata.

For all their varied tempos and flickering changes of mood, the pieces that make up Book I of Janácek’s piano cycle On the Overgrown Path are concerned with memory and sorrow, the cycle being associated in the composer’s mind with the death of his beloved daughter Olga in 1903, although five of the pieces had already been in existence for a few years before. These include the piece entitled Lístek odvanutý (‘A blown-away Leaf’), which was one of three movements originally published in 1900 for harmonium. On this disc we hear this delicate mood-study as arranged for violin and piano by Jan Štedron.

The other works by Janácek heard in this recital are early pieces from his student years. The Romance was one of seven pieces of that title which he composed as an exercise for Oscar Paul, his teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory, in 1878–9, and the only one that happens to survive. In the autograph manuscript, which was discovered in 1930 in the archive of the Teachers’ Institute at Brno, it is called 4. Romance (‘Romance No 4’). The score is dated 16 November 1879 and it is evidently the piece about which Janácek wrote to a friend on 17 November that Paul had liked it but thought it too ‘massive’ (‘wüchtig’) for a Romance. It is quite extended, with much careful imitation in the piano and quite a massive climax, but it is likely to impress the listener particularly for its sustained outpouring of romantic lyricism.

The Dumka is thought to date from 1880, and was apparently first performed in 1885 in a benefit concert for the Brno Organ School, though it was not published until 1929, shortly after the composer’s death. The Czech term ‘dumka’ originally meant a lament, from the Ukrainian ‘duma’, a kind of narrative ballad. In Slavonic music, the dumka has an A–B–A form, usually alternating fast and slow sections. (Dvorák’s famous ‘Dumky’ Piano Trio was not written until 1891.) The passionately melancholic opening strain of Janácek’s piece is effectively contrasted with a more pathetic middle section.

Calum MacDonald © 2010

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