Ernő Dohnányi is one of those composers whose name is familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in classical music, but whose actual music is much less well-known or indeed performed. I’ve certainly not heard a piece of his in concert, which says more about the conservatism of concert programmers than the quality of his music.
He was born in what was Hungary and is now Slovakia. His given name as presented here, and in the CD booklet, is the Hungarian version, but he more often went by the German version—Ernst von—later in life, a choice that led to problems post-WW2.
His first quintet, written at the age of 17 as a student at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music, is remarkably assured, and should be picked up by ensembles wishing to provide audiences with an alternative to the great, but much played, Brahms quintet. Indeed, it was Brahms who gave the work his imprimatur and arranged for a performance in Vienna. None of the four movements overstay their welcome—a frequent error I find so often in early works—and are overflowing with melody and splendid rhythmic life.
The second quintet, composed two decades later, is darker in atmosphere, though retaining a Brahmsian essence. It has an unusual structure, in three movements, which get progressively slower. There is a thread of angst running through the first movement, which could be read as a sign of impending war or perhaps a consequence of his personal turmoil, having fallen in love with Elza Galafrés, who was married to the violinist Bronisław Huberman at the time. Dohnányi was also married, and neither could gain a divorce until a number of years later. It could also simply be that it was a musical theme he wanted to explore, and had nothing to do with personal or world events. Whatever the reason, the contrasting elements of the movement are delineated wonderfully by the performers. The middle movement Intermezzo is something of an inverted scherzo, starting with a slow ‘trio’ section and moving to the deliciously frothy fast section. It has a much lighter feel, almost salon, than any other of the music of his that I’ve heard. The finale is darkly tinted, and again with the undercurrent of tension sometimes rising to the surface.
If I find the quartet less immediately appealing than the quintets, it is probably due in part to my preference for chamber music with piano. However, there is plenty to savour through the three movements, such as the driving rhythms in the middle Presto acciaccato—a tempo descriptor I’d never seen before, the translation of which seems to suggest pain—and the heartfelt theme that opens the finale.
In 2015, I reviewed a previous Hyperion recording of the quintets with the Schubert Ensemble of London, together with a Naxos release. I concluded that there was little to separate those two, though the Hyperion was certainly better value as it also included the Serenade for string trio. How do those older recordings compare with the new one, especially given the glittering status of its performers? The differences are certainly not great, but the Hamelin/Takács ensemble provides more depth and characterisation throughout both works. This is very apparent in the inner movements of the first quintet. Their Scherzo has so much more fizz than the others, while the Adagio, at more than a minute longer, exudes greater passion without any sense of dragging. In the second quintet, again the middle movement shows the superior qualities of the playing in the new recording, with the melody line that is carried by the viola given so much more character. The interplay between the piano and the strings later in the movement is delightful and evidence of the outstanding qualities of the players.
The two earlier releases have a price advantage over the new release, but there is no doubt that the performances here are superior, and the disc is full to almost overflowing. The production values are first class, as usual for Hyperion. I certainly hope that the performers will revisit Dohnányi as there are two other string quartets, the serenade and a piano quartet.
If you haven’t made the acquaintance of these sadly underappreciated works, this is your invitation to hear them in performances that surely won’t be bettered. Yes, you will have to pay a few pounds more than the alternatives, but there is no question it is worth it.