DOHNÁNYI: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op.
Hungarica, Op. 32b
Howard Shelley, pianist; BBC Philharmonic Orch/Mathias Bamert, cond.
CHANDOS 9649 (F) (DDD) TT: 68 min.
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When Franz Liszt’s father (a Leopold Mozart wannabe) took his 10-year-old
son to Vienna in 1823, and two years later to Paris, the eastern half of
the Habsburg Empire was left with a single “leading composer,”a
genial provincial named Ferenc Erkel (born a year before Liszt), who wrote
the Hungarian “national opera,” Hunyadi László in
1844. Budapest didn’t become an international capital again. composer-wise,
until a trio was born between 1877 and 1882. First came Ernö von Dohnányi
(who renamed himself Ernst when Germany became home base for 10 years at
the turn of the century). Béla Bartók followed in 1881 (the
shortest-lived, 1881-1945), and a year later Zoltán Kodály
(the longest-lived, 1882-1967). Bartók was clearly the “modernist,” which
is not to imply that Kodály’s music lacked paprika or peppercorns
(but he remained at heart a traditionalist). Dohnányi was a creature
of the 19th century though he lived until 1960 and composed almost to the
end – a conservative who had three other careers: solo pianist, educator,
and conductor. Like Bartók he emigrated to the U.S. and died in
New York City, but after, rather than before, WW2 (by which time Bartók
was already dead two years). He spent the last dozen years of his life
teaching at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
In1898, a year after completing Piano Concerto No. 1 (dedicated to his
mentor Eugen D’Albert) Dohnányi became professor of piano
at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. He returned to Budapest in 1915,
in 1919 was appointed Director of the Conservatory, and also appointed
conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic that same year. In 1931 he became
director of the Hungarian Radio, and in 1934 of the Budapest Hochschule
modeled on Berlin’s. He gave opus numbers to only 37 works, not including
his First or Third Symphonies. Although record catalogs represented him
generously until recently, only a few works have survived in the concert
repertory, most notably Variations on a Nursery Tune for piano
and orchestra (the same “Je vous dirai, maman” Mozart used,
twinkle little star”), the orchestral Suite in F minor, and Ruralia
hungarica, Op. 32b, based on themes from a volume of Transylvanian folk
music collected and published by Bartók and Kodály in 1923.
Actually there are five versions of Ruralia: Op. 32a, seven movements
for solo piano; 32b, the five-movement orchestral suite on this disc; 32c,
three for violin and piano, and 32d, a single movement for cello and piano.
The only recent listing of the orchestral version is Dohnányi’s
own with the London SO on Philips, although I have a sketchy memory of
one by György Lehel on what must have been Hungaroton. The work could
pass for the Hungarian counterpart of Janácek’s Lachian
Dances, or Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsodies,
or a “schnibble” (as
my Grandmother used to say) from Richard Strauss—very pretty,
especially the opening Andante poco moto, rubato and the later Adagio
the two longest movements in this 25-minute work—turn-of-the-century
conservatism on a high level of professional musicianship.
The Piano Concerto (and his second one, too, composed in 1946) has had
several recordings, including a recent one on Hyperion, but this is my
first experience of it—a three-movement work of Brahmsian
size (43:24!) in the root-key of E minor with a recurring motto. It has
notes in it than substance, although it falls agreeably on the ea—especially
the Andante—and has the requisite period flourishes
for the soloist. I tend to hear the same muse who sang for Rachmaninov
a few years earlier,
and a stronger identification with Strauss’ Burleske than
anything in the Brahms repertoire. What the score somewhat disablingly
a finale that sweeps you along with a tune that won’t quit the memory.
This is no fault of Howard Shelley, who plays the ivory off the keys—one
always looks forward to his virtuosic excavations, even when the music
veers off into Grieg-land for a few flourishes in the first movement. It
is music to put in your car’s CD player for a drive to look at leaves,
or buy plantings. It won’t let you fall asleep, but at the same time
won’t distract you from the manifold perils of contemporary motoring
in this age of ubiquitous telephonists without a free hand for the directional
signal, or the tailgater with high-beam halogen headlights, or the speedzany
who risks everything and everyone to make it home 85 seconds quicker than
he or she would by driving safely and sanely.
In other words, an anti-road-rage CD, affectionately conducted, played
with suitable amplitude of tone by the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic,
and recorded with 24-bit tweaking by the redoubtable Ralph Couzens and
his colleagues. Enjoy it plus long life, if the contents beguile you.
R.D. (March 2002)