Classical CD Reviews

DOHNÁNYI: “The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2” = Four Piano Pieces; Variations and Fugue on a Theme of EG; Humoreques; Valeses nobles after Schubert – Martin Roscoe, p. – Hyperion

Music that charts Dohnányi’s progress from a talented young Brahms imitator to a composer with an emerging individual voice.

Published on June 13, 2013

ERNŐ DOHNÁNYI: “The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2” = Four Piano Pieces, Op. 2; Variations and Fugue on a Theme of EG, Op. 4; Humoresques in the Form of a Suite, Op. 17; Valeses nobles after Schubert – Martin Roscoe, p. – Hyperion CDA67932 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 79:55 ****:

Twentieth-century critics seem to have taken Ernő Dohnányi to task for not being Bela Bartók or Zoltán Kodály. But then there is also the matter of his ambiguous relationship with Nazism, including a virulent strain of anti-Semitism, which he displayed as director of the Budapest Academy, refusing entry of Jewish students to the master class. Listening to Dohnányi’s well-upholstered, beautifully crafted but old-fashioned music, it’s hard to imagine that he was a classmate of Bartók at the Budapest Academy or that he would later champion the music of both Bartók and Kodály as musical director of the Budapest Philharmonic.

Two things are clear from an audition of Dohnányi’s piano music. One is that he was a virtuoso pianist; in fact, he was one of the most celebrated pianists in the early years of the twentieth century, concertizing widely in Europe and America. Second, Dohnányi’s early debt to Brahms is apparent in all this music. The Four Piano Pieces, written while Dohnányi was still a student at the Budapest Academy, pay very direct homage to Brahms in that three of the movements are given titles which recall Brahms’s own piano music: there are two intermezzi and a final capering capriccio, which also has hints of Chopin in its fleet passagework. But the quasi-religious middle section is, again, pure Brahms—or rather pure ersatz Brahms! Whatever, this is attractive music from the pen of a man barely twenty years of age.

Being a Brahmsian of the first order, it’s not surprising that Dohnányi favored variations form or that he would make his first grand impression as a composer of piano music writing in this genre. The “EG” of the title of his Op. 4 (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of EG) is one Emma Gruber, the wife of a wealthy Hungarian, as well as benefactress of Hungarian musicians and herself an amateur musician. Later, she would become Dohnányi’s first wife—ironic, given his later intransigence as director of the Budapest Academy, because she was Jewish. As with Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli Variations, the theme that Dohnányi works with is a simple waltz, which he puts through the paces in a series of thirteen very much assorted variations. No. 1 sounds something like a Chopin etude; No. 2 could be another Brahmsian intermezzo; the march-like No. 3 and scherzando No. 5 have a Schumannesque ring to them. And so it goes. Clearly, though Dohnányi understands everything about writing gracious, idiomatic, demanding music for the piano, he hasn’t yet established his own unique voice. More shades of Brahms: Dohnányi ends his variations with an ambitious four-voice fugue à la Brahms’s Handel Variations.

Dohnányi’s Humoresques, written ten years later (1907) shows that the composer’s music has  now gained some welcome individuality. Arranged as a suite drawing on a variety of music forms and time periods, Humoresques contains a march, a toccata, a pavane “from the 16th century, a pastorale, and a concluding—what else? fugue. True to the title of this collection, the opening March is jocular, mildly comical in its casualness. The following Toccata is almost too single-mindedly serious and virtuosic by comparison. Pianists and listeners alike get to relax through the very pretty Pavane and Pastorale, with its evocation of the musette. But the stately Fugue shakes things up again and shows Dohnányi’s mastery of musical forms, as well as his increasing individuality of expression.

This filled-to-bursting program ends with an odd little addendum, Dohnányi’s arrangement of Schubert’s Valses nobles (Schubert’s D. 969). Dohnányi excises three of Schubert’s original twelve waltzes and uses the first in the series as a refrain throughout. He also adds his own ripe harmonies and countermelodies and in other ways provides a late-Romantic commentary on Schubert.

Martin Roscoe plays this work with a delicate lilt that’s such a contrast to the virtuoso finger work he brings to the grand fugues of Op. 4 and Op. 17. He’s up to every challenge of this often challenging music, taking Dohnányi’s Brahmsian pretensions very seriously, permitting himself a broad pianistic grin in the lighter pages of Humoresques. First-rate piano sound, as usual, from Hyperion.

—Lee Passarella

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