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Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, August 2017

…one of the most dynamic and sparkling soloists in the Variations and including two other Dohnányi works, this is a disc to be reckoned with. © 2017 Gramophone

Sinfini Music, August 2014

Falletta is becoming a Naxos stalwart, making good quality recordings of masterpieces you’ve never heard of—as witness this, in which the best music isn’t the headline Variations, but the intoxicating Miniatures. © 2014 Sinfini Music

© Howard Smith
Music & Vision, October 2010

‘…the Buffalonians…make their virtuosity seem almost effortless…’

The 1914 Variations on a Nursery Song by Ernö Dohnányi (1877–1960) follow in the steps of the German/Russian ‘romantics’, leavened with an unfailing facility at incorporating arresting Respighian tone-colour, revealing an irrepressible art for creating ‘Classical’ style variations.

Dohnányi was never one to be straight-jacketed within a single musical idiom. Thus the subject and form of ‘Variations on a Nursery Song’ appeals to a diverse audience (Mozart knew the theme as Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman; he came up with 12 Variations in C major, K265, 1778) for its high spirits and compositional virtuosity.

What’s more it delves into the subconscious and surfaces with sidelong links to ‘Baa, baa, black sheep’ and ‘Twinkle, twinkle, Little star’.

The same ethos is true of the consistently entertaining half hour Suite in F sharp minor and his fifteen-minute Symphonic Minutes with its rich romance and stylish finish.

JoAnn Falletta lavishes scrupulous attention on the five Minutes and ensures their keen wit and warmth are never lost to sight. They are immediately appealing and distinguished by delightful brevity; the longest (at 4’28”, track 4) is a theme with (You’ve got it!) exquisite ‘variations’, glistening across the serried ranks of instruments.

Track 1, titled Capriccio; Vivacissimo possibile—all 2’31” of it—demands the sort of orchestral virtuosity these Buffalo instrumentalists have in bucket-loads.

The ‘Minutes’ conclude with a dizzying Rondo (polka) dance.

The Suite, Op 19 (variations yet again), with an opening Andante, six variations and a Scherzo, Romance and Presto to top it off, is strikingly attractive with gorgeous melody, and lovingly-crafted ingenuity throughout.

This is a captivating account of the Symphonic Minutes; it’s faithful to the idiom and shot through with keen observances of how to interpret slow movements. There is a compelling sense of childlikeness, reminiscent of far-off days of youth and energy. Believe me, Falletta will leave you gasping from a strenuous, fun-filled workout in the latter movements.

Best of all the Buffalonians and their astute conductor make their virtuosity seem almost effortless; and, at the same time, no big deal.

If it’s simply an introduction to Dohnányi’s music you require, or if cost is an issue, then this up-to-the-minute Naxos issue has oodles going for it and will surely give unalloyed pleasure. At budget price who’d complain.

The Seniors Review, October 2010

Often lush in sound, these variations borrow from various musical styles, excellently performed by the BPO. Faletta knows how to coax musical colour out of her orchestra to bring us the music of the Hungarian composer, whose work harked back to German Romanticism rather than looked forward to the modernity of the likes of Bartók and Kodály.

Herman Trotter
American Record Guide, September 2010

Dohnanyi (1877–1960) is certainly not an undiscovered composer. Nor is he underappreciated by most avid listeners. But to much of the general audience his name is unfamiliar.

His perceived position in the second rank of composers is mostly a matter of fashion. At the turn of the 20th Century Dohnanyi was as renowned as his contemporary Hungarian peers, Bartok and Kodaly. But while they used their research into Hungarian folk music to propel them into more adventurous compositional territory, Dohnanyi remained an ardent advocate of Germanic romanticism. In fact, most of his music was published in Germany under the name Ernst von Dohnanyi. His steadfast romanticism made his music, like his contemporary, Korngold’s, seem old-fashioned and unprogressive to early 20th Century advocates of the harmonic radicalism of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, in whose shadow he remained until neo-romanticism resurfaced in the 1970s.

Case in point: Dohnanyi was an ardent Brahmsian. His 1909 Suite in F-sharp minor is quite similar in scope and spirit to Brahms’s Haydn Variations and has the same rapturous lyrical appeal. But on our concert stages the Suite is heard maybe once for every 50 bookings of the Brahms.

Falletta’s new Buffalo Philharmonic recording of the Suite gives ample evidence that this imbalance is overdue for adjustment. Its four movements open with a spacious Andante con variazioni, and Falletta phrases and links the variations so adroitly that their varied character and the overall structure are both given prominence and combine to make a compelling musical journey. She and the BPO also clearly demonstrate, here and elsewhere on this disc, that Dohnanyi’s rich orchestration is masterly, but always infused with a sense of effortless rightness rather than calculated display.

The fleet, witty Scherzo gives way to a warm, cello-centered Romanza, one of the composer’s most endearing creations; and the concluding Rondo is full of life and rollicking humor, with a winsome reminder of the work’s opening theme casually thrown in. The performance balances all these elements with a rare, natural musicality.

Dohnanyi’s other career as a virtuoso pianist gave him an appreciation of how expressive the variation form can be, so it’s no surprise that it shows up in many of his works. In fact, his most popular work is the 1916 Variations on a Nursery Song, Op. 25, for piano and orchestra. As the centerpiece of this recording, it confirms Dohnanyi as a master of wry musical wit, with its long, pompous orchestral introduction giving way to a onefinger piano statement of the childrens’ tune Americans know best as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’.

It’s easy to be disarmed by this musical joke, but careful listening will reveal—and pianist Eldar Nebolsin reconfirms—that although Dohnanyi’s score is a masterly amalgam of light-heartedness and devilishly difficult pianism, it is as rewarding for the listener as it is taxing for the pianist. The composer said that he wrote the work for the enjoyment of people with a sense of humor and the annoyance of others.

With engaging major-minor interplay, its 11 variations and fugato Finale traverse the realms of mock seriousness, staccato expression, a tinkling music box, an exaggerated lilting waltz, and a couple of whimsical marches. An intense Passacaglia with a huge climax and a stately Chorale with piano commentary overlaid are the only serious variations, but the Finale reminds us of the tone of the ponderous Introduction, then concludes with a snappy descending piano one-liner.

Up to now, the gold standard for these two works has been performances by the Royal Philharmonic with Boult conducting the Suite (1962) and Sargent with the composer as pianist in the Variations (1957), all remastered in 1989 and reissued on EMI 63183. The sound holds up amazingly well, but Falletta’s performances are just as sensitive and devoted, and Naxos’s sound is even richer and better defined.

You won’t want to discard the EMI if you have it, but the fact that Falletta also includes Dohnanyi’s 1933 Symphonic Minutes tips the scales in Naxos’s favor. At half the length of the Suite, Symphonic Minutes is a wonderful introduction to Dohnanyi’s sonic world, with memorable themes, romantic lyricism, even the wit—and a set of variations plus a four-minute Rhapsody that is simply exquisite. Falletta and the BPO nail this work as a stunning opener. There are other perfectly adequate recordings by Bamert and Onczay, but Falletta’s ardent and tasteful performances make the new Naxos release the clear preference.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, September 2010

Symphonic a virtuoso showpiece designed to showcase the ensemble’s players. Accordingly, Dohnányi’s work employs a large ensemble augmented by a battery of colorful percussion instruments that includes triangle, snare drum, suspended cymbal, bass drum, glockenspiel, and celesta. Bass clarinet and English horn enhance the wind section. It’s a delightful piece in five movements that combines elements of a suite with a concerto for orchestra...It’s the Variations on a Nursery Song, next up on the disc...Nebolsin brings to Dohnányi’s score a childlike innocence I find very disarming. You can hear it in his initial entrance where he plays the “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” tune in a way that reminded me of a baby prattling away to the tinkling of a each of the variations I felt Falletta and Nebolsin were more in tune with each other and with Dohnányi’s romper room romp.

The Suite in F-Minor, completed in 1909, is the earliest written piece on the disc, so that the program is presented in reverse chronological order...The structure of the piece is interesting...The work easily breaks down into a four-movement symphony in which the first movement is a theme and set of six variations, the second movement a scherzo, the third movement a romanze (andante poco moto), and the finale a rondo (allegro vivace). Though I can’t think of one off the top of my head, I’d be willing to bet that there’s at least one symphony with a first movement theme and variations instead of a sonata form that was written by someone sometime before 1909, the year of Dohnányi’s suite, so the idea probably wasn’t that radical. You can flood the Letters column with your examples in the next issue.

Performance-wise, I’d have to call it a draw between Falletta and Bamert [on Chandos] in the Symphonic Minutes and the suite, but the Variations on a Nursery Song with Nebolsin, the characterful and exceptionally disciplined playing of the Buffalo Philharmonic under Falletta, and the impressive sound of the Naxos recording tip the balance in favor of the new release. Add to that Naxos’s budget price, and you have a disc that’s impossible not to recommend.

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, August 2010

Erno von Dohnányi had the misfortune of being a twentieth-century Hungarian composer, born just a few years before Bartók and Kodály. Whereas, they absorbed Hungarian folk music and created their own national style, Dohnányi remained rooted in German Romanticism. He belongs more to the late-romantic tradition of Richard Strauss, Elgar and Rachmaninov than to twentieth-century modernism, and his music has been unjustly neglected. He may not have been the most original of composers, but his works are invariably well crafted and contain memorable tunes and no little humor. Undoubtedly his best-known composition is the Variations on a Nursery Song included on this disc.

This delightful work with its dazzling piano part should be a repertoire staple, a good substitute for the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Paganini Variations. Dohnányi begins the work famously with a mock-tragic introduction before the piano plays the simple tune Ah, vous dirai-je Maman (“Twinkle, twinkle, little star”). There follow eleven ingenious variations that recall such composers as Brahms (variation 3 near quoting his Second Piano Concerto), Saint-Saëns (variation 4), Dukas (variation 9 with its bassoons recalling the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Richard Strauss (variation 7 waltz) and Rachmaninov (variation 10) before ending the work with an uproarious fugato. Keith Anderson in his notes in the CD insert describes these ingenious variations in some detail. The pianist gets a real workout, but so does the orchestra. Eldar Nebolsin, an Uzbek pianist born in 1974, is fully up to the task on this recording. While the Buffalo Philharmonic has a few less than perfect moments - take the rather strident trumpets in the introduction - overall it accompanies well. The woodwinds in particular shine. The previous recording, with which I was most familiar, was Solti’s with the Chicago Symphony and pianist András Schiff. I remember being more impressed by the sheer virtuosity of the great orchestra than Schiff’s pianism. Here the situation is somewhat reversed, with Nebolsin outstanding but also with the orchestra as a real partner.

The other two works on the disc may be less familiar, but are no less attractive. The first work on the disc, the oddly titled Symphonic Minutes (or Szimfonikus percek) was composed some twenty five years after the Suite in F sharp minor yet does not sound any more modern than the earlier works. It is also a suite of five movements that are beautifully orchestrated and very memorable. The first movement, a rather Mendelssohnian Capriccio, is followed by a Rhapsodia, a slow movement, which along with the fourth movement Theme and Variations is introduced by an elegant English horn solo. The third movement Scherzo provides a nice contrast to the two slow movements. The second and fourth movements, though, provide the real meat in this work. The fourth movement Theme and Variations is especially lovely. The haunting English horn solo returns at the end of the movement accompanied by the celesta. The finale is a whirlwind Rondo that ends the work in high spirits. Like the Variations on a Nursery Song, the Symphonic Minutes should receive more exposure on concert programs. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic do the music proud.

The last work on the disc is the earliest and the longest of the three. It is basically in four movements, with the first movement an Andante with six variations. It is rather Brahmsian, but also brings Elgar’s Enigma Variations to mind. Again the themes are memorable and the work as a whole deserves greater exposure. Following the variations are a Scherzo, perhaps more Tchaikovskian than Mendelssohnian, and then a haunting Romanza with oboe, cello, and English horn solos. As in the Symphonic Minutes, the Suite concludes with a brilliant Rondo that takes on a Spanish flavor with the introduction of castanets before it ends. This performance does the work full justice. The recorded sound for all three works is first rate.

If you don’t know Dohnányi’s music, this would be as good a place as any to start. The music is delightful throughout and the performances are fine. Keith Anderson’s notes provide plenty of detail to enlighten even those who think they know and appreciate Dohnányi. Furthermore, this all comes at budget price.

David Hurwitz, July 2010

It's sad that these pieces aren't performed more often; even the delicious Variations seems to have fallen by the wayside. Ernö von Dohnányi was a marvelous composer, one of the few with a genuine musical sense of humor, and God only knows how rare that is. The Variations start with one of the great anti-climaxes in all of Romantic orchestral music, while the finale of the Suite has a delightful episode in which a fit of Spanish bravura (played here with great élan) suddenly breaks out, castanets and all. Symphonic Minutes might not be enticingly named, but the music offers a quarter hour of pure pleasure.

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic play this music really well, and they are lucky to have a piano soloist in Eldar Nebolsin more than up to the formidable task that Dohnányi sets for him. The etude-like variation for piano and winds moves with effortless virtuosity and excellent balances between solo and orchestra, while the "Sorcerer's Apprentice meets Danse macabre" variation features some true, humorously grotesque moments (great bassoons). It all builds to an impressively passionate climax leading to the brilliant final fugue. As already mentioned, Falletta handles the Suite with plenty of character. Both here and in Symphonic Minutes the orchestra projects the music's vivid colors with unaffected clarity. Very good sound too. An excellent disc from every perspective.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, July 2010

The Symphonic Minutes (not Symphonic Miniatures, which is something entirely different) is a delightful five movement suite of very attractive music which still gets the occasional airing in public…Falletta is a conductor for whom I have a lot of time and I have enjoyed the many broadcasts of the Buffalo Orchestra, under her directorship, on WNED Buffalo. She has been the principal conductor in Buffalo for 11 years, and she has done some fine work with them—I especially remember a superb Rachmaninov 3rd Symphony a few years ago. This is a fine performance of the Symphonic Minutes, idiomatic and sensitive, with great care being taken over the interpretation. There is a real Hungarian feel to the two slow movements—the variations of the slow movement being especially soulful. There is also no lack of playfulness and, indeed, boisterousness in the three fast movements. The finale moto perpetuo will leave you breathless. This work is a riot of ideas and it’s colourful and entertaining. What’s best here is that Falletta displays a light touch and doesn’t try to make something big out of the music—she allows it to speak for itself.

The Suite is a big work insofar as it plays for half an hour, but its content is not serious. As with so much of Dohnányi’s music, it’s very attractive and immediately appealing. Perhaps Falletta isn’t quite at home here as she is in the Minutes but it’s still a very good performance, full of good humour and the interpretation is intelligent and understanding.

The work on this disk which everyone will know is the Variations on a Nursery Song, subtitled For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others. I can relate to that. This is a very good performance, both Nebolsin and Falletta giving very distinguished performances, with the variations very well characterised, and Dohnányi’s poking fun at various composers is well captured…if it’s an introduction to Dohnányi’s music, or if cost is important to you, then this Naxos issue is very good and it will give much pleasure. At the price you cannot complain.

Pierre-Jean Tribot, June 2010

(Partial English translation of the original review in French)

Eldar Nebolsin offers an interpretation that is perfect in style and colour. It is perfectly seconded by conductor JoAnn Falletta at the head of the Buffalo orchestra. With the versions of Kocsis/Fischer and Schiff/Solti (both unavailable now) this CD marks the summit of Dohnányi discography. To complement the Variations on a Nursery Tune, the orchestra and conductor present two beautiful pieces, finely orchestrated, which give a beautiful image of the composer, certainly somewhat Romantic in an avant-garde century, but who knew how to paint orchestral landscapes of great colour. This American orchestra is a model of discipline and cohesion under the baton of a conductor who elucidates the precision and sense of the narration [of the music]. At the Naxos price, it is difficult to pass up this very beautiful CD.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2010

Little more than the delightful Variations on a Nursery Song now keep the name of Ernő von Dohnányi in the concert repertoire, yet in his life he commanded a major career as a pianist, conductor, composer and teacher. That his music soon became neglected stems from the fact that he refused to follow fashionable vogues, and simply continued composing highly attractive scores that ignored the excesses of the modern school of atonality. Turn to track 5, the Rondo finale to the Symphonic Minutes, and sample some of the most light and attractive music from the first half of the 20th century. That he had a ready sense of humour comes in his use of the children’s tune, Twinkle, twinkle little star, as the thematic material for his Variations, the simplicity highlighted by the intentionally pompous introduction of Wagnerian proportions. His skill of using that material in a series of brilliant variations has long offered pianists an opportunity to display their virtuosity. It is here played by the winner of the Sviatoslav Richter Competition held in Moscow in 2005, Eldar Nebolsin. Mercurial passages are whizzed through with gay abandon, and he enters into those moments of sheer fun with judicious changes of pulse. The conductor, JoAnn Falletta, enters into the jollity without overindulgence. Though readily enjoyable, the Suite in F sharp minor falls into a more serious category, with echoes of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák in a dance-like scherzo and the energetic final Rondo. The Buffalo Philharmonic again show they can outplay any American orchestra, and the recorded sound is stunning. My top of the month recommendation.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group