Chris Ramsden
MusicWeb International
December 2019

Ernst von Dohnányi, aka Ernő Dohnányi, keeps having a moment, but somehow that never actually translates to his music being played regularly in concerts. Nevertheless, discs of his works must be relatively successful, because they keep on appearing. Hyperion had something of an unexpected hit last year with a disc by the Nash Ensemble featuring the Serenade for string trio, opus 10, acknowledged as one of his masterpieces. It’s a disc I’ve enjoyed greatly, and the music is so well-crafted and melodic that it’s been a pleasure to get to know it. I guess this latest disc is meant as a sort of follow-up. This time it’s no less a dream combination than the Takács Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin on piano who feature Dohnányi’s two piano quartets and his second string quartet.

I sometimes think piano quartets are the ideal product for home listening—big enough to be satisfying but contained enough for a domestic setting. They are, then, the ideal way of hearing a composer whom you might not be able to catch in the concert hall. And these are piano quintets you wouldn’t want to miss, performed with vivacity and verve by performers who appear to understand the music fully—even though they can’t have played it very often.

Dohnányi was born in 1877 in a part of Hungary now re-branded as Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, but he chose to use the German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi, for most of his works. That and his very conservative style (though he was a friend of Bartok’s and promoted his music) meant he was judged by many to be a Nazi collaborator during the Second World War. Yet this is a man who was sacked as director of the Budapest Academy for standing up to the Hungarian Soviet Republic, in 1919, as he refused to get rid of Kodaly. Throughout his life, it seems he was under attack by either right or left. No wonder he fled his homeland in 1944 and ended up in Florida until he died in New York in 1960.

His first piano quintet was written while he was still a student. Brahms declared ‘I couldn’t have written it better myself.’ Who am I to argue? It’s superb. The second quintet is a much less straightforward and a moodier beast—but it was written around the time of his most famous work, the Variations on a Nursery Tune, and shares its high level of inspiration. The melody in the second movement will lift your day.

The second string quartet is less immediately gripping than the quintets but is very attractive and deeply melodious. The disc itself is very well recorded. But as if to prove me wrong, and destroy my entire thesis, I see that a performance of the Serenade for string trio has turned up at Wigmore Hall. What’s more, it’s being performed by the Young Soloists of the Kronberg Academy, so a new generation is taking up the baton. Maybe this is the moment that Dohnányi finally makes it into the mainstream. I wouldn’t count on it, though.