About this Recording
8.553332 - DOHNANYI: 6 Concert Etudes / Variations, Op. 29 / Ruralia Hungarica

Erno Dohnanyi (1877 - 1960)

Erno Dohnanyi (1877 - 1960)

Six Concert Etudes, Op.28 (1916)

Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song, Op.29 (1916)

Pastorale (Hungarian Christmas Song) (1920)

Ruralia Hungarica, Op.32a (1924)


Hungary has given us some of the most extraordinary musicians. Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Franz Lehar (1870-1948), Bola Bartok (1881-1945), Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), Fritz Reiner (1888-1963), Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973), George Szell (1897-1970) and Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985), just to name a few. The world pantheon would of course be incomplete without Erno Dohnanyi, the elder colleague and promoter of both Bartok and Kodaly.


Dohnanyi was born in 1877 in a town located 35 miles east of Vienna, the capital of Austria. The town of Dohnanyi's birth was Hungary's capital for hundreds of years, known then as Pozsony. In German, when Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), its name became Pressburg. Now this town's name is Bratislava, and today it is the capital of Slovakia. Erno Dohnanyi's own name also has a German version, Ernst von Dohnanyi.


Political turmoils in Europe, affected citizens of many countries of that continent, not just the Hungarians. The two world wars and the frequent rearrangements of national borders were, however, far more severe in European lands east of France. Many eastern European classical instrumentalists and composers born at the end of the nineteenth century found themselves displaced and forced to seek safe havens allover the world.


The fate of Dohnanyi is especially ironic, because he was for a long time Hungary's pre-eminent musical force. He was an internationally acclaimed pianist, world-renowned composer and, for a quarter of a century, conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he performed more than one hundred programmes each season. Dohnanyi championed younger composers, such as Bartok and Kodaly, was the director of Hungarian Radio, gave concertos all over the world promoting Hungarian music, and presided over the Budapest Academy, where he taught piano and composition for many years. In short, from 1915 to 1944 Dohnanyi had a powerful influence on the musical development of his native country. Yet by 1948 he was hounded out of Hungary and, after brief periods in Austria and in England, he found a temporary respite in Argentina, where he chaired the piano department at the University of Tucuman, some 800 miles north-west of Buenos Aires.


From 1949 until his death in 1960, Dohnanyi lived in the United States, thanks in great part to the foresight and largesse of Florida State University in Tallahassee, which provided him with a faculty position in its music department. His appointment by an American institution of higher learning does not appear to be an unusual event until one realises that in 1949 Dohnanyi was already 72 years old, seven years older than the then standard mandatory retirement age for employees, including professors.


The musical journey that ended with a heart attack and a fatal bout of influenza in early February 1960 in New York City had begun at the age of eight when Dohnanyi started his piano and harmony lessons with Karoly Forstner, the Pressburg Cathedral organist. By 1893 Dohnanyi entered the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest, where he was taught piano by Stephan Thomen and composition by Hans Koessler. He also received a few master lessons from Eugen d'Albert (1864-1932), a pupil of Liszt.


Dohnanyi's musical career started very auspiciously. His Op.1, the Piano Quintet No.1 in C minor, was warmly praised by Johannes Brahms. In 1896, Dohnanyi was awarded the King's Prize in composition by the Hungarian government. In 1899, his Piano Concerto, Op.5 won the von Billow (Bosendorfer) Prize in Vienna, beating more than sixty competing compositions by others. His 1898 debut as a pianist in London, where he performed his favourite Beethoven piano concerto, No.4 in G major, Op.58, was a tremendous success.


In 1954, Ohio State University awarded Dohnanyi an honorary doctorate. In his waning years, he composed and performed much less. His last public recital was in Tallahassee in 1959. He continued to record, however; at the time of his death, Dohnanyi was in New York City making studio recordings of Beethoven's music for Everest Records.


The works included in this first volume of Dohnanyi's complete piano music are representative of his fresh, upbeat, and muscular style. Dohnanyi was a piano virtuoso of the highest rank and most of his piano pieces require powerful technique.


The Six Concert Etudes, Op.28 are bravura pieces for steel fingers and marathon stanlina - from start to finish there is no time to catch a breath. The first Etude's solemn, pounding melody, introduced at the beginning by the left hand, is literally showered by swift torrents of chords played initially by the right hand; the hands alternate in their roles, producing a spectacular effect. In the second Etude, three groups of two sixths in one hand whizz by three groups of three notes in the other; the listener hears a coy, playful scherzo, while the pianist contends with a significant test of dexterity. The third Etude deserves to be experienced not just aurally but also visually; the finger acrobatics, where the two hands play interlaced throughout, one under the other, are something unique that has to be seen to be believed. Etude No.4 recalls the majestic march-like flavour of the first Etude; its insistent bass melody imbues the piece with both sadness and dignity. Etude No.5 is a rush of demisemiquavers, an avalanche of sparkling musical frosting. The sixth and final concert Etude, subtitled Capriccio, is the best known of the set, one of Dohnanyi's most popular piano solo compositions, and an enduring, favourite encore of virtuoso pianists everywhere.


Dohnanyi's Op.29 is a Hungarian folk song theme with ten variations. The variations differ greatly in length and character, but they flow into each other, turning the theme and variations into a seamlessly evolving tone poem of contrasting moods and textures.



The Pastorale is an improvisation on the Hungarian Christmas carol, Mennybol az angyal (The Angel from Heaven). Dohnanyi used its first few bars as a seasonal salute that he penned onto his hand-written greeting-cards to friends and relatives. The serene, crystalline, background bells offer a persistent, mellifluous holiday atmosphere.


Dohnanyi wrote his Ruralia Hungarica in 1923-24 in three versions: for piano solo (Op.32a), for orchestra (Op.32b), and arranged for violin and piano (Op.32c). The seven pieces are based on familiar gypsy melodies. The folklore is used as a spice, however, to late romantic harmonizations. The first of the seven is first syllable of each word, make up the temperamental, lively dance that is the second piece. The mood abruptly changes to tranquil introspection in the third piece. In the fourth Dohnanyi provides a blustery homage to Beethoven. The fifth and sixth pieces offer graceful, sombre, reflective, and dark-hued fluency to the set. With the seventh piece, the suite ends in an ebullient, sprightly, brilliant conclusion. Ruralia Hungarica is archetypal Dohnanyi. a meticulously crafted, tuneful, rewarding listening experience


George Ledin Jr.



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