“Trouvailles” Cello and Piano Sonatas by BOËLLMANN, DOHNÁNYI and BRIDGE – Hannah Holman, cello /Réne Lecuona, p. – Blue Griffin

by | Mar 28, 2016 | Classical CD Reviews

A talented piano/cello duo performs sonatas by Boëllmann , Dohnányi and Bridge.

“Trouvailles” Cello and Piano Sonatas by BOËLLMANN, DOHNÁNYI and BRIDGE – Hannah Holman, cello /Réne Lecuona, p. –  Blue Griffin BGR 359, 76:24 (Distr. by Albany) *****:

The catalogue of works for cello and piano is not extensive, and yet these two musicians, Réne Lecuona and Hannah Holman, searched it and found these three treasures (French “trouvailles”). All three composers were virtuoso performers on their chosen instruments before they began serious composing – Léon  Boëllmann on organ and piano, Ernó Dohnáhnyi on piano, and Frank Bridge on viola – and so  the quality of playing required in each of these works is very high.

Léon Boëllmann (1862 – 1897) is the earliest of the three and the shortest-lived. Born in Alsace, he entered music school at age nine and happened to come under the tutelage of two great organ teachers, Lefèvre and Gigout. He won prizes in organ and piano performance as well as music theory, and was a favorite of his teachers. Indeed, he married Lefèvre’s daughter, and was adopted by Gigout. He moved easily in the best Parisian musical circles, and at 25 became “organiste titulaire’ at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul. He died at age 35, likely of tuberculosis, but managed to write 160 works, in all genres. The Sonata in A minor for Piano and Violoncello Op. 40 which opens this disc was written when he was 23. It has three movements, in the typical Allegro-Andante-Allegro pattern. The first movement features a   particularly intricate conversation between the two instruments.

Ernó Dohnáhnyi (1877 – 1960) survived enough adventures to fill several lifetimes. He was born in what is now Bratislava (Slovakia) but was then the Kingdom of Hungary. As such, he is regarded by many as second only to Liszt among pianists and composers from Hungary. His father, a mathematics professor and amateur cellist, was his first teacher. He moved to Budapest at age seventeen to enter the Royal Academy of  Music. His talent and impatience caused him to ask to sit his exams early, and he graduated with high marks in composition and piano performance before the age of twenty.

He debuted as a piano soloist in Berlin that same year, to high praise, and that success carried him to performances in Vienna and London, and to America the following year, and he was the first among prominent pianists of the day to perform chamber music as well as recitals and orchestral concerts.  He composed the sonata recorded on this disc during this period.  He married a pianist named Elsa Kunwald, and began conducting, all before he was twenty-four. This first marriage produced two children – Hans and Greta. Hans became a heroic figure, and martyr in the anti-Nazi resistance (as did collaborator and brother-in-law Deitrich Bonhoffer), and Hans fathered another Hans, a German politician, and Christoph, the former Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. But before that, Ernó took up violinist Joseph Joachim’s invitation to teach at the Hochschule in Berlin from 1905 to 1915. It was there he Germanicized  his first name to Ernst, and added the “von” to his second name.

Dohnáhnyi  took up with another woman in Berlin, and had a child by her, even though the respective spouses did not give them divorces until six years later. In 1919 he returned to Hungary with the lofty ambition of reshaping the country’s musical life. And he succeeded, producing more than 100 concerts each year. He was the first elected Chief Conductor of the Philharmonic Society – and re-elected each of the next 25  years. He ran the Budapest Academy off and on (off when he refused to fire Bela Bartok  from the faculty for his leftist pronouncements, and then was himself dismissed), and was music director of  Hungarian Radio. He also toured the U. S. extensively during the 1920s, and was even named Chief Conductor of the New York State Symphony. In 1933, he organized the first Liszt International Piano Competition. And he met and married his third wife.

He spent the early years of WW II fighting anti-Jewish legislation. In 1941 he resigned from the Academy, and in 1944 he disbanded the orchestra rather than submit to restrictions on Jewish members.  He left Hungary for Austria in 1944, a move soundly criticized by his countrymen. But since he was apolitical, he made no effort to justify the move. It was left to his third wife to restore his reputation, and colleague Zoltan Kodaly helped by pointing out that Dohnáhnyi’s efforts had saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish musicians in Hungary. The next move was to the U.S. to take up a post in the Faculty of Music at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He gave his final performance there as conductor in 1960, then travelled to New York to record some Beethoven sonatas for Everest. He died there ten days later of pneumonia.

Strongly influenced by Brahms and Schumann early in his composing career,   Dohnáhnyi wrote highly lyrical and vivacious music often tinged with a sense of humor. The Groves dictionary writes that “he composed as if he were a virtuoso of all instruments”. This is evident in his Sonata in B flat major for cello and piano Op. 8, a four-movement work, the second of which sounds  just like a Brahms Trio,  the last of which is a Tema con Variazioni (Theme and nine variations) which display vivid imagination and demands technical gifts. The performers – Hannah Holman on cello and Réne Lecuona at the piano – are well up to these demands having worked together since 2004.

A bit less demanding, but equally interesting is the newest and final composition on the album – Frank Bridge’s Sonata in D minor for Violoncello and Piano. Bridge was British through and through: born in Brighton in 1879, and died in Eastbourne in 1941. He studied at the Royal College of music in his early twenties, notably under Charles Villiers Stanford, took up the viola, and was competent enough to play with the English String Quartet. His compositions were conservative and his political views pacifist through the First World War, the period during which this sonata was written. It has only two movements but they are unusual in structure. He wrote more ambitious and post-tonal music between the wars, and was very frustrated that it was ignored. Bridge’s limited fame rests on the fact that his (only) student, Benjamin Britten, wrote a set of variations based on a Bridge theme.

Réne Lecuona is Professor of Piano at the University of Iowa, with degrees from the Eastman School, Menahem Pressler (Beaux Arts Trio) among her teachers, and recordings on five different labels, she performs extensively in the U. S. and Europe. Hannah Holman also has several links to Iowa having spent over a dozen years as part of Iowa University’s Maia Quartet, and more recently in a residency at the University of Northern Iowa. She has performed in, and led, cello sections of several orchestras, including  New York City Ballet, and City of Birmingham Symphony under Simon Rattle. The musical chemistry between these two is remarkable.

Also praiseworthy is the sound recording and production here. Blue Griffin is a recording company and label under the direction of polymath Sergei Kvitvo. As both a performer and composer of classical music, he has succeeded amazingly (viz. award-winning recordings, 14-city tour including Carnegie Hall, and award-winning commissions). But in addition, he has won success and fame as a classical music recording engineer and producer. He has produced more than 150 discs of which this is a recent one – recorded at Blue Griffin’s purpose-built Ballroom studio in Lansing, Michigan in June and August of 2014. Fold-out packaging is good, with excellent notes on the composers and compositions written by Ms. Lecuona. Fans of well-played chamber music should obtain this album for their collections.

—Paul Kennedy