DOHNANYI: String Quartet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 7; String Quartet No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 33 – Aviv Quartet – Naxos 8.572569, 57:29 ****:
Erno von Dohnanyi (1877-1960) composed his Third String Quartet in 1926. From the outset of the Allegro agitato ed appassionato we feel a curious mix of musical styles, one that borrows modes from national Hungarian sources, with sudden exclamations from each of the instruments, as well as exhibiting strong formal ties to Brahms. Dohnanyi has no qualms about urging the lower two instruments to growl while the upper strings sing or skitter in wide, volatile leaps. A prominent viola part (Nathan Braude) proves as dexterous as it is expressive. The mood of the movement takes its cue from a surreal sense of place, emotionally hazy but yearning for lyrical freedom. Late in the movement the ethos takes a turn close to Dvorak, but the slashing figures from before return in feverish counterpoint.
An Andante religioso con variazioni follows, hymnal in the style of Dvorak but whose idiosyncratic harmony and polyphony lie somewhere between Hungary and Enescu’s Romania. The text writing becomes more thin and acerbic, the upper strings ostinato while a strong chordal procession embraces alternately martial and bittersweet melancholy. The ostinati move lower as free flowing variations extend the lyrically dark theme. Cellist Rachel Mercer basks in her moment of sad lyricism, while the two violins (Sergey Ostrovsky, Evgenia Epshtein) soar in a lovely duet. Dohnanyi’s harmonic freedom and striking blends of color mark this composition as a rare moment in post-WW I romanticism. A potent opening to the Vivace giocoso gives us the impression of a rustic, syncopated scherzo in the manner of Smetana, but the harmonies break traditional bounds. The middle section stops and starts playfully askew, the viola’s often leading the colorfully tumbling figures. First violin Sergey Ostrovsky has had his own concertante virtuosity exhibited, and the dance becomes increasingly animated and frenzied. A sudden pause, then an impish coda which accelerates in modal harmonies to a superheated conclusion.
The First Quartet (1899; pub. 1903) could easily be attributed to Brahms or one of his artful imitators. The waltz tunes move through the viola and cello, intimate and expansive in a Viennese style. The modulations assume a modal character, close to Dvorak but tinged by quick rocket figures that smack of academic Mendelssohn. Nathan Braude’s viola emerges in a leadership role well into the development section, then the first violin sighs and lilts its way back to the second subject. Dohnanyi avoids a literalist approach to sonata-form, choosing a more “Wagnerian” strategy in evolving the prior themes for the expressive content. The second movement, Allegro grazioso, begins as a violin solo over a plucked accompaniment. The variation writing casts an easy grace tinged with melancholy, perhaps bits of Dvorak and Bruch. Dohnanyi has the instruments enter into brief moments of dialogue and then unisono homophony, almost an organ sound. Occasionally the open harmonies resemble moments in middle Beethoven, especially Op. 59, No. 3.
The third movement, Molto adagio con espressione, casts a post-Romantic glow that benefits from the low cello and the aerial trills in the violin part. Hungarian modal harmony infiltrates the extended melodic line, which breathes a plaintive song for passing Romantic sensibility. The hazy meandering working-out with concertante first violin assumes the autumnal air we know from Faure and late Brahms but having become a hothouse flower not far from contemporary Zemlinsky. The Finale: Vivace resorts to Dohnanyi’s total immersion in folk and gypsy energies, although that hazy impulse rears up again that soon absorbs the drone bass of bucolic ribaldry. A series of turns and mordants in the individual instruments becomes a sort of idiosyncratic polyphony, quite virtuosic and rife with color. All slightly harmonically askew, Viennese but neither Schubert nor Brahms, the music exerts a fascinating hold on our musical impressions, and that haunting viola keeps us alert as the music glides to a decisive finish.
Recorded at St. Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (17-19 May 2010), the Aviv Quartet, founded in Israel some ten years ago, plays Dohnanyi with a natural felicity that recommends the disc as a source of bountiful returns.
An excellent survey of a favorite Chopin genre…