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Hyperion Records

CDA67871 - Dohnányi: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1
Townscape, Badacsony Hillside by Emil Parrag (b1925)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: February 2011
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: January 2012
Total duration: 80 minutes 19 seconds


'The auspices are good even before you press the play button … a master pianist who has thoroughly immersed himself in the composer for years … a particularly happy start to the series' (Gramophone)

'Martin Roscoe performs these memorable virtuoso showpieces with tremendous panache and musical sensitivity … Roscoe's control of timbre is utterly magical … a charismatic and witty performance' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Works some of which are the most winning of the late Romantic era … Roscoe finds the ideal blend of lightness and broad lyrical sweep … a programme that refreshes some gorgeous, unjustly neglected music' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Roscoe's immaculate pianism, probing musical imagination and, above all, sympathy with Dohnányi's expressive ways and means make him the ideal interpreter for such a comprehensive retrospective' (International Record Review)

The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1
Widmung  [1'39]
An Ada  [1'22]
Sphärenmusik  [6'14]
Valse aimable  [2'01]
Um Mitternacht  [2'16]
Morgengrauen  [3'18]
Postludium  [1'41]

Ernö Dohnányi was one of the most extraordinary polymaths in musical history: director of the Franz Liszt Academy, conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, music director of Hungarian Radio, he was also revered as a teacher—anyone who was anyone in Hungary was taught by him, not least Georg Solti. Dohnányi was also one of the finest pianists of his generation. As a pianist-composer his music grew out of the tradition of both Liszt, his compatriot, and Brahms, but his command of instrumental colour and rhythmic élan is all his own.

This volume, the first of a complete survey from Martin Roscoe, encompasses nearly half a century of Dohnányi’s composing life, from the trenchant virtuosity of the Four Rhapsodies to the wit of the late Three Singular Pieces.

Martin Roscoe’s previous recordings for Hyperion reflect his eclectic interests, from Bach transcriptions to the complete piano music of Nielsen and no fewer than four volumes in the Romantic Piano Concerto series.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ernö Dohnányi was one of the most prolific musicians of the twentieth century. At one point in his career he served as the director general of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, the conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, and the music director of the Hungarian Radio. He also taught an entire generation of great musicians in Hungary, including Géza Anda, György Cziffra, Annie Fischer, Boris Goldovsky, Edward Kilenyi, Ervin Nyiregyházi and Sir Georg Solti. Dohnányi’s most enduring legacies, however, may lie in his compositions for piano, in which he combined his talent as one of the premiere pianists of his generation with his flair for composing timeless masterworks.

Dohnányi was born on 27 July 1877 in Pozsony, Hungary (recognized by many Europeans as Pressburg and now known as Bratislava, in Slovakia). His first composition, a sixteen-bar Prayer for piano, dates from 1884. Over the next decade, he would compose seventy-five more works. The majority of these youthful compositions are for solo piano or for chamber ensembles that include the piano: logical genres for a child prodigy seeking to forge an identity as both a composer and a pianist. His first appearance as a soloist took place on 28 December 1890, when the thirteen-year-old Dohnányi played a Chopin Nocturne, a Mendelssohn Scherzo, two of his own character pieces, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 8, with another of his own compositions as an encore. Four years later, he made his Viennese debut, in a performance of his own Piano Quartet in F sharp minor.

In 1894 Dohnányi matriculated at the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music, which is now known as the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. There, he continued to develop as both a composer and a pianist by absorbing the late-Romantic compositional style from Hans Koessler and a virtuosic approach to pianism from István Thomán, a student of Liszt. Dohnányi graduated from the academy in 1897 with Artist’s Diplomas in both composition and piano.

After taking supplementary lessons from Eugen d’Albert, Dohnányi launched his career as a pianist with performances throughout Austria and Germany, as well as multiple tours of Great Britain and North America. He also began establishing an international reputation as a composer by performing his own works. The addition of these compositions to the catalogues of the prominent music publishers Doblinger and Schott confirmed his status.

In the autumn of 1901 Dohnányi settled in Vienna. It was here that he composed his Four Rhapsodies, Op 11, which he dedicated to Thomán. As Dohnányi later told his third wife and biographer Ilona von Dohnányi, this work

can be considered as a sonata in four movements: the first Rhapsody is the first movement, because it has a simpler form; the second Rhapsody replaces the slow movement; the third corresponds to a scherzo of a sonata; the last Rhapsody, an elaboration of the Gregorian chant ‘Dies Irae’, includes the themes of the former three Rhapsodies. I did not call the work ‘sonata’, because its structure is somewhat looser and each piece can be performed separately.

While some listeners have identified a Hungarian flavour to the work, especially in the Rhapsody in F sharp minor, Dohnányi eschewed such attributions. He insisted that the individual movements ‘are not rhapsodies in the sense of the Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt, in which Hungarian folksongs are elaborated. My themes are all original, and when people find that their style is Hungarian, it is because I am Hungarian.’

Dohnányi moved to Berlin in 1905 to accept a professorship at the prestigious Hochschule für Musik. The first composition that he completed upon arriving there was Winterreigen Op 13, subtitled ‘Ten Bagatelles’, which served as his farewell to Vienna. With the exception of the first and last bagatelles, each movement bears a titular reference or a printed dedication to a specific friend he had made in Vienna. An Ada even pays musical tribute to its dedicatee through repetitions of the pitches A-D-A. Dohnányi also used the work as a whole to reinforce his status within the great lineage of composer-pianists. The title Winterreigen (Winter Round Dances) is reminiscent of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), and the subtitle ‘Bagatelles’ alludes to Beethoven’s masterworks in the same genre. The most obvious references, however, are to Schumann. Dohnányi himself explained: ‘The dedication of the piece as a whole to the spirit of Robert Schumann is revealed in the first piece, Widmung (Dedication), by its use of the first melody from Schumann’s Papillons.’ Widmung is also the title of the beloved first movement of Schumann’s song cycle Myrthen. Other composers referenced in Winterreigen include Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn, but the Postludium returns to a Schumannian technique by spelling out in pitches the word A-D-E, the German version of ‘Adieu’.

In 1915 Dohnányi returned to Hungary. He became a professor of piano at the Liszt Academy in 1916, and its director in 1919. Shortly afterwards he was elected president and director of the Budapest Philharmonic. Dohnányi was dismissed from the Liszt Academy later that year by a new political regime, but he continued to perform, averaging 120 appearances a year. His concerts were so abundant that in 1920 Bartók wrote: ‘Musical life in Budapest today may be summed up in one name—Dohnányi.’

In the period after World War I, Dohnányi began composing nationalist works. This included his Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song, which he premiered in Budapest on 27 December 1920. Unlike the Four Rhapsodies, this work is based on a traditional Hungarian melody: the Christmas carol ‘Mennybol az angyal’ (The Angel from Heaven), a song about the angel who appeared before the shepherds to announce Jesus’s birth. Inspired by the southern Italian shepherds who play their music in the streets of Rome during Advent, Pastorales are often associated not only with country life but with Christmas itself. In keeping with the standard conventions for composing Pastorales, Dohnányi’s contribution to the genre features drones in the bass that imitate shepherds’ bagpipes and a lilting siciliana in the upper register that is reminiscent of shepherds’ shawms. The Hungarian Christmas Song finally enters during the repetition of the siciliana, as counterpoint to that melody. In addition to providing a suitable genre for setting a Christmas carol, the Pastorale once again aligns Dohnányi with earlier traditions. Other masterworks that use similar musical devices to evoke the nativity include the Pastorale from Corelli’s Christmas Concerto as well as the instrumental movements that introduce the angel’s proclamation in both Handel’s Messiah and J S Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

Dohnányi returned to the Liszt Academy in 1928, the year in which he gave his 1,500th concert. Three years later he became the music director of the Hungarian Radio. In 1934 he further expanded his dominance over music in Hungary by once again becoming the director of the Liszt Academy. He remained in Hungary until 1944, by which time he had resigned the directorship of the Liszt Academy and disbanded the Budapest Philharmonic in protest at the anti-Semitic laws that forbade those institutions from employing Jewish musicians. When the Red Army reached Budapest in November 1944, Dohnányi travelled westward, eventually settling in what would become the American Zone of Upper Austria. In the years that followed he was blacklisted by jealous Hungarian musicians and vilified by the increasingly communist Hungarian government in retaliation for anti-Bolshevik stances he had taken before and during World War II. In a cruel twist of irony, the unsung hero of the Holocaust resistance was accused of being a Nazi war criminal. The US Military Government repeatedly investigated and cleared Dohnányi, but the smear campaigns caused irreparable damage to his reputation. He spent the next four years travelling from Austria to France and then to South America in a series of failed attempts to revitalize his career. In 1949 he emigrated to Tallahassee, Florida, to accept a position as professor of piano and composer-in-residence at The Florida State University.

While in Tallahassee, in 1951, Dohnányi composed his Three Singular Pieces Op 44, which was his last composition for solo piano. The humorous work is dedicated to John and Martha Kirn, who had been Dohnányi’s most loyal advocates throughout his odyssey from Europe to the United States. As with the Four Rhapsodies, the Three Singular Pieces can be played individually or together to comprise a traditional multi-movement plan: in this case, the fast-slow-fast configuration of a classical sonata. The first piece is a Burletta, a genre traditionally associated with humour. Just as Bartók used rhythmic interplay to infuse wittiness into the Burletta movement of his String Quartet No 6, Dohnányi’s joke continually repeats an intentionally clumsy sequence of bars that are five, four, three and two beats in duration. The second movement, Nocturne (Cats on the Roof), is a parody of a Romantic nocturne, with the contemplative serenity of the night interrupted in the middle and end of the piece by cascading patterns that represent the meowing of cats. The final piece is a Perpetuum mobile that could indeed last for ever: near the end, the score includes the whimsical instructions ‘Da capo con ripetizioni ad infinitum’.

Dohnányi continued to compose, teach, perform and conduct until his death on 9 February 1960. He died in New York City, where he was making recordings of Beethoven’s works for piano as well as of his own piano music. He left behind an indelible legacy that includes not only original compositions for piano, but a number of transcriptions and paraphrases. These pieces, which are primarily charming waltzes that he used as encores throughout his career, include transcriptions of waltzes by Brahms, Delibes, Schubert and Strauss. The Waltz included here is a paraphrase of the memorable ‘Valse lente’ that introduces the first two acts of Delibes’ then-popular ballet Coppélia. After a bravura introduction, Delibes’ waltz appears in its original state, but is quickly ornamented with melodic and harmonic surprises that surely delighted Dohnányi’s audience. The ‘Valse de la poupée’ (Waltz of the doll) from Coppélia’s second act serves as a contrasting middle section before the ‘Valse lente’ returns in a stirring finale. One can easily hear how Dohnányi was able to call not only on his talents as a pianist and a composer but also on an entertaining panache to become—in Bartók’s words—a ‘public idol’.

James A Grymes © 2012

Other albums in this series
'Dohnányi: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2' (CDA67932)
Dohnányi: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67932  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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