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Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Rediscovers Hungarian Virtuoso

July 25, 2010

DOHNÁNYI Variations on a Nursery Song
Symphonic Minutes, Suite

Eldar Nebolsin, piano
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor


Ernő von Dohnányi had a long career as an important composer, pianist and teacher. Deeply indebted to the Germanic Romantic tradition, the works on this disc showcase his love of scintillating orchestral tone-colour—notably of brass, wind and percussion—and his fascination with Classical forms such as the variation. His Variations on a Nursery Song traverses several musical styles in a tour de force of good-humoured virtuosity, while the Symphonic Minutes and the Suite in F sharp minor cultivate a lush, romantic mood with characteristic dashes of suavity.

Referred to more often by scholars as Ernst von Dohnányi, the German form of his name he signed to his manuscripts, Dohnányi lived a tempestuous life. At the start of the 20th century, he was one of Europe’s most renowned piano virtuosi.

World War II brought tragedy to his life. His son Hans von Dohnányi was hanged along with Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer for their plot to assassinate Hitler.

Another son survived the war and went on to become the mayor of Hamburg, Germany. But Dohnányi clashed with the Communist authorities in Hungary, and—in a bitter twist, considering the fate of his son Hans—was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. He and his third wife eventually ended up in Florida, where they began a new life.

Until his death in 1960, this figure of Old World gentility taught quietly in Tallahassee, Fla.

He was forgotten, and most of his music was, too.

“One reason was that Dohnányi was writing tonal music when others were turning to extreme avant-garde,” Falletta explains.

The other reason for his neglect was the unjust taint of Nazism.

“The moment he finished fighting the Nazis, the Communists needed to discredit him. He was a powerful political figure at that time. Musicians like that were,” Falletta adds.

“He went to Florida under a cloud, a terrible cloud. He never got over it. I suppose he had a decent life in Tallahassee, but no one knew who he was. He was by far the leading pianist in Europe during his lifetime.”

Recorded live in Kleinhans Music Hall, the BPO’s Dohnányi disc features “Variations on a Nursery Song,” a witty, romantic piano concerto based on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” with pianist Eldar Nebolsin. It also includes the “Symphonic Minutes” and the 1909 Suite in F sharp minor.

Falletta had already recorded Dohnányi’s violin concertos for Naxos, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and BPO Concertmaster Michael Ludwig. The new disc puts her, and the BPO, in the forefront of a Dohnányi renaissance.

“His music is so powerful, so beautifully written,” she says. “And it’s sophisticated music. It’s so chromatic, so rich. In much of it, like the Suite, there is this Hungarian sort of swashbuckling romance. This Hungarian sweep, this rubato. He’s really a unique individual.”

Voyage of discovery

The Dohnányi CD is being issued at the same time as another BPO disc, of the modern composer John Corigliano.

CORIGLIANO Violin Concerto ‘The Red Violin’

Michael Ludwig, violin
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor


With this new recording, JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic continue their revelatory exploration of Corigliano’s highly engaging and imaginative symphonic music. Phantasmagoria draws material from his immense opera The Ghosts of Versailles, with subliminal quotes from Mozart, Rossini and Wagner. Music from his third film score, The Red Violin, provided elements which Corigliano elaborates in the Violin Concerto, its opening Chaconne being described by the composer as ‘a passionate romantic essay’ which he has complemented with an effervescent Scherzo, an intensely emotional Andante and a racing, rollicking Finale.

Both discs reflect Naxos’ mission to record music that is, to most, still a bit of a mystery.

The name Dohnányi—pronounced “DOHKH-nahn-yee” survived for the last few decades mostly because of the composer’s grandson Christoph von Dohnányi, the conductor who led the Cleveland Orchestra for 20 years.

Now, Ernő, or Ernst, is stepping again into the spotlight, in appropriately dramatic fashion.

During her voyage of discovery, Falletta got in touch with James Grymes, a professor at the University of North Carolina who can claim credit for two books on Dohnányi. Reached on the phone in Charlotte, N.C., he explains that he stumbled onto the man and his music through colorful happenstance.

Grymes was a master’s student at Florida State University when the university’s music department got a call from Dohnányi’s grandson. Unlike conductor Christoph, this grandson was not a musician, and he wanted to report that his grandfather’s house had several closets full of papers. He doubted they were valuable but hoped someone could take a look.

Grymes laughs, looking back. “I was just this master’s student on a courtesy mission. It was worth looking into.”

The first thing he found was Dohnányi’s Second Symphony.

“There was someone who had done a dissertation on Dohnányi’s symphonies, and said what a tragedy it was that the Second had been lost. And it was just a mile down the road. Dohnányi, as an 80-year-old man, would walk to school every day. So it was a pretty short path.”

The symphony became the focus of Grymes’ master’s thesis. As he researched it, he became friends with the family.

“One of the things I found was that his third wife, she was a writer by trade, and she had a manuscript of a biography of Dohnányi written when he was still alive,” he says. “She had tried to get it published, but English was like her fifth or sixth language. The family said, ‘We’d really like to get this published.’ I said, ‘We’d have to find someone to edit it quite extensively.’ They said, ‘Well, would you do it?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

The book — titled “The Song of Life” after a cantata Dohnányi wrote called “Cantus Vitae”— was published in 2002. Grymes also assembled a “bio-bibliography” of Dohnányi and now is working on a book probing Dohnányi’s post-war years. He also began an annual Dohnányi Festival in Florida.

Naxos encouraged Falletta’s interest in Dohnányi.

“They had dates in the summer and said, ‘What would you like to do?’ I said, ‘Dohnányi.’ They have really given us free reign.”

BPO praised

The initial reviews have praised both music and musicians.

“The Buffalo Philharmonic again show they can outplay any American orchestra,” writes reviewer David Denton, a former Naxos executive.

Britain’s Yorkshire Post opined: “The Buffalo Philharmonic with conductor JoAnn Falletta rivals any orchestra in the States.” The paper called Dohnányi “appallingly neglected.”

Falletta rejoices.

“That’s the biggest compliment to us, when people say, ‘This music is incredible—why isn’t it played more?’ ” she says.

“We’ve heard just these two reviews. We’re waiting for other people to hear it.”

Source: Mary Kunz Goldman, New classical Music Critic, The Buffalo News


Eldar Nebolsin Biography & Discography

Michael Ludwig Biography & Discography

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Biography & Discography

JoAnn Falletta Biography & Discography

John Corigliano Biography & Discography

Ernő Dohnányi Biography & Discography


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