In his recent interview for Pianodao, concert pianist Martin Roscoe enthusiastically discussed his long-held ambition to record a complete series of the solo piano works of the great Hungarian composer and polymath Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960).
Now that ambition reaches its fulfilment, culminating in the fourth and final release in Roscoe’s recorded Dohnányi cycle for Hyperion Records, released this month, and an easy choice for Pianodao’s Recording of the Month.
I’ve been a fan of Dohnányi’s music for several years, not least knowing that my own teacher Joseph Weingarten had been one of his students in Budapest Academy. I’ve been collecting Roscoe’s recordings since the series started, and have been eagerly awaiting this final issue.
Before reviewing the CD itself, here’s a short introduction to the composer and music…
Dohnányi was born in Pozsony (modern day Bratislava, capital of Slovakia), then in the Kingdom of Hungary, Austria-Hungary. As a child he studied music with his father, a professor of mathematics and gifted amateur cellist, beginning formal tuition aged 8 with the organist Carl Forstner.
At 17 he entered the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music (now the Franz Liszt Academy, Budapest), where his teachers included István Thomán (one of Liszt’s favourite students) and for composition Hans von Koessler, a devotee of Brahms’ music. He later also studied piano with another famous Liszt student, Eugen d’Albert (whose piano compositions are well worth exploring, and have been superbly recorded by Piers Lane).
It is perhaps no wonder that Brahms and Liszt are clear influences whose presence is felt in almost all of Dohnányi’s music.
Dohnányi quickly established an extraordinary career in music, making a name as one of the foremost piano virtuosi of the early twentieth century, as well as a fêted composer. In time he also become well-respected as a conductor, and a leading piano teacher whose students comprised a starry list that included Andor Földes, Géza Anda, Annie Fischer, Georg Solti and Georges Cziffra.
Dohnányi’s career spanned a period of huge upheaval, including the First World War, the subsequent break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of fascism and Admiral Horthy’s regime in Hungary, the Second World War, siege and fall of Budapest and incorporation into the Soviet bloc. Finally leaving his homeland, he spent his last years in Florida, USA.
The Complete Piano Music
Dohnányi was one of the great “pianist-composers”, a contemporary of Rachmaninov, Busoni, and of course his slightly younger compatriot and lifelong friend, Bartók.
His output almost entirely comprises virtuoso concert works in a high Romantic style. Individual movements have become popular, particularly from the Four Pieces Op.2 and Four Rhapsodies Op.11, as well as the delightful (and easier) Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song (1920).
In his Ruralia Hungarica Op.32a, Dohnányi toyed with folk influences, but he never fully embraced the ethnomusicological approach of Bartók and Kodály.
Roscoe has carefully divided Dohnányi’s music between the four CD recordings now available, bringing a balanced programme to each.
The first disc (available here) included the mighty Four Rhapsodies together with the delightful set of miniatures Winterreigen and the Pastorale.
Volume 2 (available here) includes a stunning performance of the Four Pieces Op.2, together with the Humoresques in the form of a suite Op 17, works dating from the early years when Dohnányi was a touring virtuoso.
The third volume (available here) included the mature works from Dohnányi’s glory years in Budapest, including the deservedly popular Ruralia hungarica.
A Disc for the completists?
With such an array of glorious music already presented on the first three discs, one might be forgiven for expecting the fourth and final disc to be strictly for the completists.
How far this proves to be from the truth!
As James Grymes explains in his exemplary CD booklet note,
“The works on this fourth album demonstrate Dohnányi’s lifelong efforts to solidify his place in the great lineage of composer-pianists by writing in genres in which his predecessors excelled, specifically the suite and the passacaglia of the Baroque period and the nineteenth- century genres of the concert étude and character piece.”
The programme is:
- Six Concert Études Op.28 (1916)
- Suite in the olden style Op.24 (1913)
- Six Pieces Op.41 (1945)
- Passacaglia in E flat minor Op.6 (1899)
- Rondo alla Zingarese (after Brahms) (1920)
It’s a programme that includes a range of pieces from across Dohnányi’s career, and in a variety of genres. Importantly, it’s a programme that includes a succession of stunning works.
The Programme in detail
Opening the disc, the Six Concert Études Op.28 offer one of those examples of jaw-dropping virtuoso bravura that seemed to flow from the generation of pianist-composers Dohnányi belonged to. I was acquainted with these pieces from the rather breathless Naxos recording of them by Markus Pawlik.
Roscoe here brings to these miraculous pieces more weight, and the sense of flow that they need in order to make their musical mark rather than merely tickling the ears. From the dramatic opening and Lisztian splendour of No.4 to the lush Romantic yearning of No.3 (fans of Rachmaninov will go weak at the knees in the central section of this!) and sparkle of No.2 and No.6 (which, incidentally, was so popular in its time that it was recorded by Godowski, Horowitz and Rachmaninov!), this is a performance that leaves no doubt that as a concert work this masterpiece has been unjustly neglected.
The Suite in the olden style Op.24 from 1913 is the first of two works included in this recording which reveal Dohnányi’s fascination with the Baroque, and interest in revisiting its forms, albeit with the voice of a Romantic virtuoso pianist. The Suite follows a textbook outline, the Prelude followed by the expected Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet and Gigue.
While emulating the dance rhythms and genres of an earlier era, there’s no mistaking this for music of the early twentieth century, it’s chromaticism at times a little contorted in its dogged determination to cling to tonality.
I’ve never personally felt this to be one of Dohnányi’s stronger works, but Roscoe here makes a strong case for it, and it proves to be a delightful counterpoint to the more exuberant fireworks between which it is sandwiched.
Listening to this new recording back-to-back with Dohnányi’s own recording from the 1940’s, the latter has a clarity of texture that more closely connects it to the sound-world of the Bach prototypes, but Roscoe brings a relaxed gloss and carefree nonchalance which highlights the genuine charm of these pieces.
The Six Pieces Op.41 date from 1945 and are among Dohnányi’s last solo works.
If the Suite had reminisced about the music of the Baroque, these pieces hark back to the popular character pieces of the 19th century, recalling at times the music of Liszt’s Années de Pelerinage and even Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.
The Six Pieces really rank, in my view, as among the very best of Dohnányi’s works. The range of moods here is fabulous, and of the various recordings I’ve heard, Roscoe’s ranks as the best. In particular his performance of the effervescent Cascades is truly wonderful.
The closing piece of the set, Cloches, deserves special mention too; as Grymes explains in the CD booklet:
“The final movement is one of the most unambiguously biographical compositions of Dohnányi’s entire career. He composed the sombre movement titled ‘Cloches’ (‘Bells’) in November 1945, shortly after receiving the news that his son Matthew had died in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. While the first five of the Six Pieces are short and vivacious, ‘Cloches’ is decidedly longer and much more contemplative. The persistent tolling of the eponymous church bells that introduces the piece does not stop until the very end of the movement, when it gives way to a triumphant monument to the fallen soldier: a quote from the end of Liszt’s ‘Heroic’ Transcendental Étude No 7.”
Returning to his tribute to the Baroque, the Passacaglia in E flat minor Op.6 is something of a monster: one of those pieces of such audacious compositional prowess and pianistic bravura that the impact is truly visceral. Over the course of its 14 minute duration, the music traces a dramatic and dynamic contour, but is never less than gripping in its intensity.
Bringing the disc (and cycle) to a joyous close, the Rondo alla Zingarese is one of Dohnányi’s many arrangements of favourite pieces he wanted to add to his solo recital programmes; this time the fourth movement of Brahms’ first Piano Quartet, a piece in the light-hearted style hongrois (“Hungarian Style”) favoured by both of Dohnányi’s musical heroes, Brahms and Liszt.
The recordings throughout this series have all been exemplary, closely enough recorded to have presence, but with enough reverberation for the music to occupy the stage it deserves. Every detail of Roscoe’s outstanding playing is preserved.
This final release was recorded on a Steinway piano at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, on 21–23 March 2018, produced by Jeremy Hayes with recording engineer Ben Connellan.
It is cause for celebration that the music of Dohnányi is coming back into the repertoire, with recent recordings by Sofja Gülbadamova, Valentina Tóth and Dario Dignazio all appearing within the last few months.
And now we can rejoice in this final instalment of Martin Roscoe’s complete survey, which will surely have inspired other pianists, and which easily establishes itself as the benchmark others must aspire to.
Volume 4 in the cycle is certainly not an afterthought here, either; this disc represents the climax of the series, includes some of Dohnányi’s most wonderful music, and some of Roscoe’s most superb playing yet.
A big round of applause!
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