About this Recording
8.554800 - DOHNANYI: Winterreigen / 6 Piano Pieces / 3 Singular Pieces
English  French  German 

Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Piano Works, Volume 2


Like Rachmaninov, the composer-pianist Ernő Dohnányi (who later Germanicized his name to Ernst von Dohnányi) was largely ignored by the musical establishment during his lifetime. In both cases, an unashamedly Romantic style was viewed by the so-called cognoscenti as an irrelevant anachronism in the heyday of such modernists as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Rachmaninov, however, could claim the satisfaction of phenomenal popular adoration, while this was not true for Dohnányi outside his native Hungary.

Today, the only works of Dohnányi that are considered part of the standard repertoire are the Variations on a Nursery Song for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25, and the Serenade in C major for String Trio, Op. 10. His solo piano music is widely neglected in modern concert life, a fact very much at odds with its merit. The dazzling Capriccio in F minor, Op. 28, No. 6, was once a popular encore, but even this has faded from active use.

The pieces on this recording span 55 years of the composer’s life. Although his style has repeatedly been characterized as faux Brahms, it is only in the works of Dohnányi’s earliest period that one finds this obvious emulation. The repertoire included here reveals not only an original voice, but in fact a series of remarkable stylistic changes over the course of time. This evolutionary factor is quite striking, and yet Dohnányi’s signature traits are clearly in evidence at every stage, a warm, Romantic lyricism, a captivating and original harmonic sense, a distinctive flair for virtuoso piano writing, and an individual musical sense of humour.

The Capriccio in B minor, Op. 2, No. 4, is an early work clearly reflecting the twenty-year-old composer’s idolisation of Brahms, who knew and encouraged the young Dohnányi, with a dash of Liszt thrown in for good measure. While certainly derivative, this is nonetheless an exciting, skilfully integrated virtuoso show-stopper that offers a genuinely stimulating musical experience.

With the Winterreigen (Winter Dances), Op. 13, we encounter an unmistakable stylistic transformation and an infinitely more subtle poetic vision. This collection, subtitled Ten Bagatelles, was written eight years after the Capriccio and was in fact inspired by a poem:

Winter Dances

Now let, oh let us forget today’s sorrows,

The cold, star-bright night is listening,

And in the sounds’ magic spell

Let us listen for far-away dreams!

Dipped in the gold of memories

Rise in new splendour, you, hours of festivity,

As joyful moods soon chase away the veils of sorrow,

Which shroud the happiness of our existence!

Rise in new splendour, you, joyful city on

Danube’s banks,

A soft, jubilant chord!

Friends, swiftly let us join in the wild carnival dance!

You worried people, do not scold us:

Noble minds make nobility their virtue everywhere.

A beautiful fairy tale dream!

Don’t slip away, you colourful images!

Ha! are you bubbling again, intoxicating,

fragrant potion?

A warm vital part of my youth, my memories

Which soft note signals the end?

"Ade"? ("Farewell"?)

By the piano, deep in thought, my girl friend turns

the pages

Out of a volume of Schumann’s Dance Works

Falls the wilted petal of a dark red rose

Viktor Heindl

Translation: Ilse Weber


It is easy to forgive such an evocative author the poetic licence of inventing Schumann Dance Works. He may possibly have been thinking of the Davidbündlertänze, which is really a single sub-divided work. In any case, a warm, Schumannesque intimacy does permeate this entire musical cycle, and each separate piece of the Winterreigen bears an inscription to a different friend of the composer. Although the very personal atmosphere and poetic strategy clearly communicate Dohnányi’s homage to Schumann, they are conveyed through a harmonic chromaticism that actually shows the influence of Wagner and perhaps even Richard Strauss.

Widmung (Dedication) is a brief mood-setter, and is based entirely on ingenious transformations of themes from the opening of Schumann’s Papillons, making the identity of the dedicatee undeniable. The catchy, high-spirited Marsch der lustigen Brüder (March of the Merry Comrades) cleverly avoids predictability through the use of intriguing harmonic twists and turns. Throughout its brief duration, An Ada (To Ada) insistently repeats the melodic notes A-D-A, within a mood of sorrowful longing. Could Ada have been an old flame? Marked Mit Humor, Freund Victor’s Mazurka (Friend Victor’s Mazurka) ranges from mock-serious to pseudo-suave, but its droll comedy somehow seems a remote recollection. The title of the longest piece in the set, Sphärenmusik (Music of the Spheres) might tempt one into lofty thoughts of Pythagoras, with his interest in the mathematics of both heavenly bodies and music theory. It turns out, however, that the piece was inspired by a friend who took Dohnányi for a ride in a hot-air balloon. Valse aimable (Friendly Waltz) is a highly chromatic, almost impressionistic utterance of exquisite delicacy. Um Mitternacht (Around Midnight) is dedicated to a friend named Aujust. In the midst of the rather eerie scurrying about, a symbolic two-chord motif is introduced, above which Au - just is actually written in the score. The phenomenally difficult Tolle Gesellschaft (Great Company) is a hilarious bout of musical insanity designed to send pianists to the emergency room. As if to twist the knife into the pianist’s wound, Dohnányi asks the performer to accelerate ever so gradually for about half the piece. Built from a single, quite silly motif, this piece owes much of its fascination to its wonderfully ingenious, ever-unpredictable harmonic coloration. A severe contrast is effected by Morgengrauen (Dawn), a solemn, pensive work punctuated by a repeated-octave figure in irregular rhythm, perhaps representing the ringing of church bells. The fact that the dawn is depicted near the end of the ten pieces, following the wild revels of Tolle Gesellschaft, seems to imply that the cycle was meant to be presented as a whole. The concise Postludium suggests possible inspiration from the opening of Schumann’s Fantasia in C major, although a distinct Wagnerian influence is also apparent. In a final reference to the Heindl poem, Dohnányi ends with the melodic notes A-D-E, adding emphasis by writing the letters themselves above the notes in the score.

The Six Piano Pieces, Op. 41, were written forty years later, when Dohnányi was 68 years old. In the intervening years, his musical vocabulary had widened. During a particularly adventurous period, he had incorporated Hungarian folk material in his Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song (1920) and Ruralia Hungarica (1923), piano works in which he used impressionistic textures, long-held pedal, imitations of the Hungarian cimbalom, modality, and five-eight metre. What was adventurous for Dohnányi, of course, was positively archaic to proponents of the twelve-tone technique and other futuristic twentieth century trends, but this, after all, was a composer who had actually known Brahms. In these six markedly contrasting pieces, the composer’s customary blend of humour and seriousness is expressed through an expanded harmonic palette. Though still entirely Romantic in nature, the music takes on an exploratory aspect, with each piece probing a distinctly different premise. First is a genuinely improvisational Impromptu. True to the spirit of its title, this short, gentle work curiously investigates a series of imaginative and unpredictable harmonic turns, and includes a subtle tongue-in-cheek reference to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The Scherzino bounces whimsically along, genially incorporating tone clusters in both hands, although always within a traditional harmonic framework. The earnest, romantic, open-hearted confession of the Canzonet is entirely disarming. It is all the more remarkable for its brevity. Cascades is the most French of Dohnányi’s piano works, reflecting the influence of both Saint-Saëns and Ravel. Structurally, the piece is the only one on this recording that is through-composed, or evolutionary, rather than based on the repetition of sections. With its brilliant, swirling arpeggios, the piece radiates an exhilarating aura of benevolence and freedom. The Ländler must surely be the most chromatic version of this dance ever heard, while Cloches (Bells) is the most serious of the six pieces. The latter work was written after World War II, in the Austrian town of Neukirchen am Walde, where Dohnányi served as a church organist. Probably inspired by actual experience, the composer seems to evoke in this piece the image of a master improviser at a church carillon. To achieve the appropriate degree of reverberation, the pianist is required to leave the damper pedal down throughout the piece, until the last four measures. The work begins as a passacaglia, with the theme repeatedly stated by the left hand, over which the right hand ‘improvises’. After a while, however, the theme itself is omitted and the writing grows progressively more free. The variations begin tenderly and gradually become more intense, eventually piling up massive sonorities.

Ever the arch-Romantic, Dohnányi always remained aloof from avant-garde compositional styles, although it was he who initially promoted Bartók’s rise to prominence and conducted the Hungarian premières of many contemporary works. In the aptly titled Three Singular Pieces, Op. 44, however, the 74-year-old Dohnányi seems to wink at his detractors as he proves himself entirely at home writing in a dissonant ‘modern’ idiom. The Burletta, amazingly, is quite Prokofiev-like, and certainly like nothing else Dohnányi ever wrote. A satirical intent is unmistakable as the composer convenes a myriad of technical complexities to make his point. Time signatures change virtually bar by bar throughout the piece in pre-determined patterns, such as 54 44 34 24 54 44 34 24 or 54 44 34 24 34 44 54; the middle section offers mixed-metre canons with independent time signatures for the two hands; the ‘repetitions’ of sections present a labyrinth of minuscule changes to drive the pianist crazy. At the appropriate time, the piece seems to end, but in the wrong key. After a confused pause, a scurrying afterthought locates the correct tonality, the whole piece a world away from Brahms. Connoisseurs of musical imagery, and of felines, will relish the altogether unique Nocturne, subtitled Cats on the Roof. Meows are delightfully evoked through symbolic arpeggiated chords, mostly in fourths, the chords’ melodic tone, the dissonant minor ninth, serves as the ‘me-’, which resolves one half-step downward for the ‘-ow’. The slinkiness, sophistication, and abrupt changes of direction so dear to the hearts of cat lovers are captured with astonishing fidelity. The middle section includes a mad chase scene. With the Perpetuum Mobile, we are treated to a fiendish pianistic tour de force in the spirit of the Schumann and Ravel Toccatas. The shifts of tonality in this work are fascinating and the virtuoso display breath-taking. Just before the coda, the direction ‘Da Capo con ripetizione ad infinitum’ (return to the beginning with infinite repetitions) ruthlessly ignores the performer’s inevitable cries of anguish. This appears, though, to be more humour than serious instruction, as even one repetition yields a sort of bloated musical redundancy. The repeat is omitted in this performance. This electrifying work features an intriguing ending in which the composer seems to sign his name rhythmically, perhaps borrowing a trick from Rachmaninov.

Lawrence Schubert
German titles translated by Ilse Weber

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