About this Recording
8.554468 - DOHNANYI: Konzertstuck for Cello / Cello Sonata / Ruralia Hungarica

Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Konzertstück in D major for cello, Op. 12
Sonata in B flat minor for cello and piano, Op. 8
Ruralia Hungarica for cello and piano, Op. 32d


The final years of the nineteenth century and the opening of the twentieth saw the Austrian Habsburg Empire divided by nationalism, on the brink of a political collapse which was made reality after the First World War. Despite that political and social turmoil, or perhaps because of it, this was one of the most rewarding and exciting times for the culture and citizens of Central Europe. Revolution in the arts and sciences was in the air everywhere. It was the age of Mahler, Freud, Bohemian Symbolists and Austrian Seces­sionists. Psychoanalysis was the new buzzword and the world seemed to be rushing into a change that would alter concepts of art and music forever.

This was the background to Dohnányi's formative years. Born on 27 July1877 in the town of Pressburg (now better known as Bratislava), his father was a mathematics teacher and a keen amateur cellist. Encouraged in his music, the young Dohnányi soon showed considerable talent as a pianist. When, at the age of eighteen he launched his Op. 1 Piano Quintet, it was the great Brahms who took an interest in the young composer and arranged for a performance in Vienna.

Brahms was responsible for much of Dohnányi's early success as a composer and the younger man's music is indebted to the mellow quality of his benefactor's own chamber works Piano studies also came on apace with the help of his teachers D'Albert and Kœssler. In 1899 he was invited to play in a European tour as soloist in Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto under the great conductor Hans Richter. In 1905, Brahms' violinist friend, Joachim, invited him to join the Berlin Hochschule für Musik as professor of piano. It was in 1915 that he reached Budapest where, after the end of the war, he was given the prestigious position of Director of the Conservatoire for Music as well as conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic.

In 1931, Dohnányi was appointed Director of the Hungarian State Radio and later Director of the Budapest Academy. The inter-war years in Hungary saw an alarming shift towards the political right with support for the German Nazis and a terrifying growth in anti-semitism. Sympathy for the Government put Dohnányi in an awkward position at the close of hostilities in 1945. Having lost both his sons in combat and being at odds with the new socialist powers, he fled to Argentina in 1948 and from there ended up as composer-in-residence at Florida State University in 1949. As composer and pianist, he remained in the United States until his death in New York in 1960.

Unlike the ground-breaking developments in a Hungarian national style of music that were being made by his compatriots, Bartók and Kodály, Dohnányi remained conservative and traditional. He took little inspiration from folk music although he did compose a Variations on a Hungarian Theme and the short pieces known as Ruralia Hungarica. Like his other contemporary, Franz Lehár, he relied on accessibility and the German Romantic tradition – particularly the music of Brahms.

Accessibility is paramount in the works on this recording as well as in his most popular work, the Variations on a Nursery Song, a fantasy for piano and orchestra based on the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. There is humour and affection in that piece, an affection which describes much of Dohnányi's work, be it the lyricism of the Konzertstück, lightness of the sonata or the attempt at Hungarian folk music in the Ruralia Huugarica; a style which owes more to Brahms' Vienna than to Bartók's Transylvania.

Of the two major works represented here, the Konzertstück of 1904 is a full scale cello concerto almost half an hour long. Dedicated to its first performer, Hugo Becker, it clearly owes inspiration to an affection for his own cello-playing father. In three interconnected parts, this is a lyrical rhapsody, beginning quietly out of the orchestra from which the cello seems to sing through a central Adagio until parting with a sense of regret at the end.

The Cello Sonata was first performed by its dedicatee, Ludwig Lebell, and the composer at a London concert in December 1899. Somewhat in the shadow of the later Konzertstück this could easily be the work of one of the German Romantics. Amongst its attractions are the nine variations of the finale recalling earlier parts of the sonata and an example of one of the composer's favourite forms.

Ruralia Hungarica is one of many pieces given that title, ranging from solo piano to full scale orchestral treatments, including the later Symphonic Minutes, given as a ballet in 1930s Budapest. Like the rest of the series, here is a portrait of village life with echoes of a lyrical and calm countryside seeped in an idealised classical folk style. Dohnányi remains a composer in all well worth attention as one of Central Europe's late Romantics. Never the last word in modern tendencies, there is much in the way of lyricism, nostalgia and melody.

David Doughty

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