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ClassicsOnline Home » DOHNANYI: 6 Concert Etudes / Variations, Op. 29 / Ruralia Hungarica
By Markus Pawlik
BBC Music Magazine
By Robert Cummings
"German-born Markus Pawlik, winner of several prestigious competitions including the Cortot in Milan, delivers knock-out performances that suggest he possesses the technique and interpretive smarts to play anything well. Naxos provides vivid sound, and the notes by George Ledin, Jr. are enlightening. We can only anxiously await volume two."
Erno Dohnanyi (1877 - 1960)
Six Concert Etudes, Op.28 (1916)
Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song, Op.29 (1916)
Pastorale (Hungarian Christmas Song) (1920)
Ruralia Hungarica, Op.32a (1924)
Hungary has given us some of the most extraordinary
musicians. Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Franz Lehar (1870-1948), Bola Bartok
(1881-1945), Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), Fritz Reiner (1888-1963), Joseph
Szigeti (1892-1973), George Szell (1897-1970) and Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985),
just to name a few. The world pantheon would of course be incomplete without
Erno Dohnanyi, the elder colleague and promoter of both Bartok and Kodaly.
Dohnanyi was born in 1877 in a town located 35 miles east
of Vienna, the capital of Austria. The town of Dohnanyi's birth was Hungary's
capital for hundreds of years, known then as Pozsony. In German, when Hungary
was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), its name became Pressburg.
Now this town's name is Bratislava, and today it is the capital of Slovakia.
Erno Dohnanyi's own name also has a German version, Ernst von Dohnanyi.
Political turmoils in Europe, affected citizens of many
countries of that continent, not just the Hungarians. The two world wars and
the frequent rearrangements of national borders were, however, far more severe
in European lands east of France. Many eastern European classical
instrumentalists and composers born at the end of the nineteenth century found
themselves displaced and forced to seek safe havens allover the world.
The fate of Dohnanyi is especially ironic, because he was
for a long time Hungary's pre-eminent musical force. He was an internationally acclaimed
pianist, world-renowned composer and, for a quarter of a century, conductor of
the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he performed more than one hundred
programmes each season. Dohnanyi championed younger composers, such as Bartok
and Kodaly, was the director of Hungarian Radio, gave concertos all over the
world promoting Hungarian music, and presided over the Budapest Academy, where
he taught piano and composition for many years. In short, from 1915 to 1944
Dohnanyi had a powerful influence on the musical development of his native country.
Yet by 1948 he was hounded out of Hungary and, after brief periods in Austria
and in England, he found a temporary respite in Argentina, where he chaired the
piano department at the University of Tucuman, some 800 miles north-west of Buenos
From 1949 until his death in 1960, Dohnanyi lived in the United
States, thanks in great part to the foresight and largesse of Florida State University
in Tallahassee, which provided him with a faculty position in its music
department. His appointment by an American institution of higher learning does
not appear to be an unusual event until one realises that in 1949 Dohnanyi was already
72 years old, seven years older than the then standard mandatory retirement age
for employees, including professors.
The musical journey that ended with a heart attack and a
fatal bout of influenza in early February 1960 in New York City had begun at
the age of eight when Dohnanyi started his piano and harmony lessons with Karoly
Forstner, the Pressburg Cathedral organist. By 1893 Dohnanyi entered the Royal Hungarian
Academy of Music in Budapest, where he was taught piano by Stephan Thomen and
composition by Hans Koessler. He also received a few master lessons from Eugen d'Albert
(1864-1932), a pupil of Liszt.
Dohnanyi's musical career started very auspiciously. His Op.1,
the Piano Quintet No.1 in C minor, was warmly praised by Johannes Brahms.
In 1896, Dohnanyi was awarded the King's Prize in composition by the Hungarian
government. In 1899, his Piano Concerto, Op.5 won the von Billow
(Bosendorfer) Prize in Vienna, beating more than sixty competing compositions
by others. His 1898 debut as a pianist in London, where he performed his
favourite Beethoven piano concerto, No.4 in G major, Op.58, was a
In 1954, Ohio State University awarded Dohnanyi an
honorary doctorate. In his waning years, he composed and performed much less.
His last public recital was in Tallahassee in 1959. He continued to record,
however; at the time of his death, Dohnanyi was in New York City making studio
recordings of Beethoven's music for Everest Records.
The works included in this first volume of Dohnanyi's
complete piano music are representative of his fresh, upbeat, and muscular style.
Dohnanyi was a piano virtuoso of the highest rank and most of his piano pieces
require powerful technique.
The Six Concert Etudes, Op.28 are bravura pieces
for steel fingers and marathon stanlina - from start to finish there is no time
to catch a breath. The first Etude's solemn, pounding melody, introduced at the
beginning by the left hand, is literally showered by swift torrents of chords
played initially by the right hand; the hands alternate in their roles,
producing a spectacular effect. In the second Etude, three groups of two sixths
in one hand whizz by three groups of three notes in the other; the listener
hears a coy, playful scherzo, while the pianist contends with a significant
test of dexterity. The third Etude deserves to be experienced not just aurally
but also visually; the finger acrobatics, where the two hands play interlaced
throughout, one under the other, are something unique that has to be seen to be
believed. Etude No.4 recalls the majestic march-like flavour of the first
Etude; its insistent bass melody imbues the piece with both sadness and
dignity. Etude No.5 is a rush of demisemiquavers, an avalanche of
sparkling musical frosting. The sixth and final concert Etude, subtitled
Capriccio, is the best known of the set, one of Dohnanyi's most popular
piano solo compositions, and an enduring, favourite encore of virtuoso pianists
Dohnanyi's Op.29 is a Hungarian folk song theme
with ten variations. The variations differ greatly in length and character, but
they flow into each other, turning the theme and variations into a seamlessly
evolving tone poem of contrasting moods and textures.
The Pastorale is an improvisation on the Hungarian Christmas
carol, Mennybol az angyal (The Angel from Heaven). Dohnanyi used its
first few bars as a seasonal salute that he penned onto his hand-written
greeting-cards to friends and relatives. The serene, crystalline, background bells
offer a persistent, mellifluous holiday atmosphere.
Dohnanyi wrote his Ruralia Hungarica in 1923-24 in
three versions: for piano solo (Op.32a), for orchestra (Op.32b),
and arranged for violin and piano (Op.32c). The seven pieces are based
on familiar gypsy melodies. The folklore is used as a spice, however, to late romantic
harmonizations. The first of the seven is first syllable of each word, make up
the temperamental, lively dance that is the second piece. The mood abruptly changes
to tranquil introspection in the third piece. In the fourth Dohnanyi provides a
blustery homage to Beethoven. The fifth and sixth pieces offer graceful,
sombre, reflective, and dark-hued fluency to the set. With the seventh piece,
the suite ends in an ebullient, sprightly, brilliant conclusion. Ruralia
Hungarica is archetypal Dohnanyi. a meticulously crafted, tuneful, rewarding
George Ledin Jr.
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