Martin Roscoe’s Dohnányi Odyssey

photo: Eric Richmond

Exclusive Interview with concert pianist Martin Roscoe

As Hyperion Records release the fourth and final disc in Martin Roscoe’s survey of the solo piano music of Ernő Dohnányi it was a delight to have the chance to ask Martin about his Dohnányi odyssey, which has taken so much of his time over recent years.

I was keen to know more about how this extraordinary project came about, and the impact it has made on pianist and audiences alike …

The Interview

Andrew: Firstly, many thanks for agreeing to talk to me! 

I’ve been looking forward to the release of the fourth and final disc in your series of the complete solo piano music of Dohnányi. And it’s finally here – but what an undertaking!

What is your earliest memory of encountering this music, and can you tell me about the genesis of this series – how the idea came about and developed?

Martin:  Like most people, I came to Dohnányi via his wonderful Variations on a Nursery Song (in the famous recording by Julius Katchen) when I was about ten years old, but before that I actually heard the announcement of his death on BBC radio news in February 1960. It’s difficult to imagine such an announcement being made nowadays on the Today programme…

Next, when I was a student at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the late 1960s I was introduced to the famous Rhapsody in C Op.11/3 by a fellow student. I was so taken with this piece I began to explore his other piano music. 

I did record a disc of solo piano music for ASV in the early 1990s, but it was when my relationship with Hyperion took off that I was able to realise my long-held ambition to record a complete series.

I recorded the first disc in 2011, but because of all my other commitments it took a little while to complete, but the final volume is now out.

Andrew:  Having now played, lived with and recorded Dohnányi’s whole solo piano oeuvre, how would you describe his compositional voice, and what do you think makes this music so special?

Martin:  Dohnányi was an amazing musical polymath who managed to combine his composing life with his careers as pianist, teacher and conductor.

His earliest compositions show a huge debt to Brahms, but one can also discern the influence of Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Strauss. His Op.1 Piano Quintet is surely the most accomplished and assured of all Opus Ones (Brahms included), and straight away one can hear some of the quirky harmonic shifts and also the sense of humour which become features of his own distinctive voice.

I don’t think anyone would claim that Dohnányi was at the forefront of musical innovation, but his music is always interesting, attractive and expertly organised.

Andrew:  How much of this music have you been able to programme in recitals, and how do audiences respond?

Martin:  I haven’t played huge swathes of it in recital programmes, usually carefully selecting a small group of pieces and putting them in context with composers like Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, or sometimes also in a “Hungarian” second half with Bartók, Kurtág and Liszt.

Pieces like the C major Rhapsody, selections from Ruralia Hungarica or the Pastorale are always useful encores also. Audiences have always responded with great enthusiasm!

Andrew:  Each of the four discs in the series seems carefully and very consciously programmed, and it’s interesting that you didn’t simply follow the chronological route through his works. Can you tell us how you went about deciding which music to include together on each disc?

Martin:  Yes, it was a carefully programmed project and, as each disc is very full, it required meticulous attention to timing.

As well as having early, middle and late works on each disc I wanted to spread out the collections simply entitled “Piano Pieces”, as well as one transcription on each disc, so it wasn’t an easy task, but I’m delighted with the final selections.

Andrew:  You also recorded the two Piano Concertos back in 1993. There’s still the popular Variations on a Nursey Tune and further, gorgeous chamber works to explore, but I wonder whether you feel your Dohnányi journey has reached a conclusion for now, or might we still look forward to further recordings in the future?

Martin:  I recorded the Piano Quintets with the Vanbrugh Quartet, and also the Violin Sonata with Tasmin Little in the mid 1990s for ASV. However, the Nursery Variations is a fabulous work which I’ve played in concert quite a few times and I would love to have the opportunity to record it.

I’d also really love to record the Sextet, which is such a fun piece and is always a hit with audiences. The Cello Sonata I’ve never played although I have taught it, and that deserves to be better known too.

Andrew:  As for the immediate future, what can we look forward to next, Martin?

Martin:  The Elgar Quintet with the Brodsky Quartet for Chandos will be out shortly.

My series of Beethoven Sonatas for Deux-Elles is in the can and has only two volumes yet to be released, and I’m busy recording a Schubert series for them currently. I’d love to record a disc or two of Chopin and some Bach sometime soon too! 

Andrew:  Thank you so much, and good luck with these fresh adventures! Also, with the Dohnányi recordings, which deserve the widest circulation.

Thank you for bringing this music to us with such stunning recordings!

Read the Pianodao review of Martin Roscoe’s Complete Solo Music of Dohnányi here.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.