Richard Hanlon
MusicWeb International
May 2019

This fine disc concludes Martin Roscoe’s consistently insightful and agreeable four disc conspectus of Dohnányi’s piano music. Weighing in at over eighty minutes, it’s a bumper issue containing three major cycles, the fine Passacaglia—a remarkable creation for a twenty year old—and an encore piece after Brahms. Roscoe’s meaty-sounding Steinway is caught throughout in superlative Hyperion sound.

James Grymes’ economical but fact-intensive note tells us that in his Six Concert Études of 1916 Dohnányi is continuing the tradition of Chopin, Liszt and even Debussy in producing a set of attractive pieces designed to reinforce and extend aspects of virtuoso technique. If his Hungarian compatriot Liszt is the obvious structural model, I suspect most listeners, like me would recognise their sound as being more Rachmaninovian. Indeed the final Capriccio is the best-known of the set and was even recorded by the Russian master, as well as by Vladimir Horowitz. Martin Roscoe is my kind of pianist in this kind of repertoire, however, perfectly happy to let the music speak for itself without unnecessary virtuosic adumbration. Such an approach pays dividends in these pieces, especially in perfectly melding Dohnányi’s specific technical demands to his quixotic harmonic and melodic inspiration. Thus in the second piece, a rapid Presto in D flat, the textural contrasts inherent in the left and right handed parts are never over-emphasised at the expense of the music, while in the extended quasi-orchestral fourth piece Roscoe holds back sufficiently for the listener to absorb the considerable merits of the harmonic material without being distracted by the composer’s colouristic ambition. The 6/8 Étude No 3 in E flat minor is a scalic exercise which arguably could pass as a lost Prokofiev Vision fugitive. Roscoe’s accounts of these pieces truly encompass the best of both worlds—he adopts a characteristically humane, musical perspective which has been central to the success of all the discs in this series.

In his Suite in the Olden Style of 1913 Dohnányi showcased his deep appreciation of baroque styles and dances in a coherent sequence. He had previously appropriated some of these forms for projects such as the Humoresques in the form of a suite, Op 17. The neo-baroquerie is never far from the surface; while it drifts in and out of the toccata-like passages of the opening Prelude it is made even more explicit in subsequent movements. Thus the Allemande projects a winning Tombeau-era Ravelian delicacy, the deft Courante has an elegant sparkle and the Sarabande conveys a darker, Latin mystery. The concluding Gigue is again somewhat Prokofievian. The Suite is an enticing find, and the clarity and refinement of Roscoe’s playing considerably enhances the listening pleasure.

More diffuse are the six character pieces Dohnányi collated together for his Op 45 set. These were all written soon after World War II had concluded in Europe and a sense of melancholy and reflection seems to inhabit them all to a greater or lesser degree. By now Dohnányi’s style seems slightly more pared down and refined compared to the earlier works on this disc. If the little Scherzino second piece displays a degree of joie-de-vivre it seems a little reined in, and Roscoe finds an affecting degree of pathos in the following Canzonetta. The fourth piece, Cascades, effortlessly evokes the waterfalls of his Alpine wartime bolthole at Neukirchen am Walde in Austria. Even more redolent of this place is the delightful Ländler (No 5) which Roscoe invests with a tastefully executed rhythmic flexibility, thus reinforcing its relative carefreeness. Most overtly tragic of the set is its concluding piece Cloches; these tolling bells reflect the agony Dohnányi had to face at the time on receiving confirmation of the loss of his son Matthew in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. The restrained tragedy of this music is barely allayed by the brief allusion to Liszt’s seventh ‘Heroic’ Transcendental Etude at its conclusion. Martin Roscoe makes an excellent case for these unassuming, little-known pieces.

Almost half a century before the Op 45 collection, Dohnányi composed his formidable Passacaglia in E flat minor, Op 6, arguably his first masterpiece. The heavy tread of its spare theme in the bass immediately hints at the monumental. While James Grymes refers to both Bach's and Brahms’ preoccupation with the form and alludes to Dohnányi’s admiration for both figures, the piece is much more than a direct homage, and while traces of their influence can be heard throughout, the Passacaglia epitomises a work in which stylistic lessons have been well-learned and thoroughly absorbed; strong hints of Dohnányi’s mature style abound. Roscoe projects the architecture and weight of this terrific piece most convincingly; it is surely no coincidence that this is the serious work he has selected to conclude this Dohnányi survey. It is a riveting account of a work that should be heard much more frequently in recital and on disc than it actually is.

In fact it’s not quite the last word, for in keeping with the other three discs in this series Roscoe adds an encore/transcription, this time in the rather substantial form of Dohnányi’s arrangement of the Rondo alla Zingarese finale of Brahms’ first piano quartet, Op 25. This addendum kills two birds with one stone, as it were, by combining Dohnányi’s reverence for that composer with their mutual affection for Hungarian gypsy music. Roscoe’s measured and tactfully variegated account provides a thrilling conclusion to a superb disc in particular and a revealing series in general. Subscribers to the previous three volumes need not hesitate.