May 21, 2020


Ernő (Ernst von) Dohnányi: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sofja Gülbadamova, piano; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ariane Matiakh. Capriccio. $16.99.

     The composers who carried the banner of Romanticism – not neo-Romanticism but the full-fledged, 19th-century variety – into the 20th century did so unashamedly while at the same time giving their expressive, tonal works a personal stamp. Rued Langgaard did this decidedly in his 16 symphonies, for example; Sergei Rachmaninoff did so both in symphonies and piano concertos; and Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) also carried the Romantic torch forward in his two symphonies and two piano concertos. However, these large-scale Dohnányi works are not particularly well-known – perhaps ironically, his one truly popular piano-and orchestra composition is Variations on a Nursery Tune (1914), in which he follows Mozart by ringing a set of changes on Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman (in English, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).

     The two Dohnányi concertos, the first from 1897-98 and the second written half a century later, in 1947, are every bit as lush and a great deal more portentous, even pretentious, than the clever and wry nursery-tune variations. Dohnányi was a formidable pianist, and he wrote both the concertos for himself to perform – yes, even though he was 70 years old when he created the second. In this way as well as in his musical sensibilities, Dohnányi resembled the virtuoso-cum-composer Rachmaninoff. And this means it seems to be something of a mystery that Rachmaninoff’s four concertos (especially the second and third) have become enduringly popular, while neither of Dohnányi’s is heard very often (although No. 1 is slightly more frequently played than No. 2). There are, however, some reasons for the comparative neglect, which come clear when they are performed with the skill and commitment they deserve.

     Certainly the excellent new Capriccio recording featuring Sofja Gülbadamova and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ariane Matiakh makes a very strong case for these pieces. The first concerto, in E minor, is huge even by Romantic standards – it runs as long as those by Brahms, about 48 minutes in this recording. It is in three movements, the first and third being very long indeed while the second, a pleasant 10-minute Andante, stands as something of an intermezzo between the pillars of the almost-equal-length opening and closing. Dohnányi did not have the skill of Brahms or Rachmaninoff in creating memorable themes, and his ultra-serious mien in this concerto makes it something of a morass in a way that the later, lighter, less self-conscious Variations on a Nursery Tune are not. It may simply be that the rather over-earnest nature of the first concerto has prevented it from gaining wide audience acceptance – while its numerous, very manifest difficulties have not made it a favorite of pianists. Gülbadamova gives no hint of those complexities and demands in her performance, which surmounts all the technical obstacles without apparent strain while pulling the rather sprawling work – especially its nearly 20-minute first movement – into coherent and cohesive shape. Matiakh has also taken the measure of the music quite effectively: orchestra and soloist perform as equals most of the time here, and the usual excellent sound and ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz are as warm and sumptuous as anyone could wish. The concerto is certainly effective as a display piece (and a considerable workout) for the soloist, even though its insistent nature and somewhat bloated form make it, for the audience, a work that is impressive rather than emotionally engaging or gripping.

     The second concerto, in B minor, although scarcely streamlined, is a more-compressed work and in many ways a more interesting one. It is not really tightly knit, but here Dohnányi controls the sprawl better than in his earlier concerto. The capital-R Romanticism is more surprising in light of the date of this concerto, written four years after Rachmaninoff’s death, than at the time of the first concerto, begun the year Brahms died. Dohnányi never updates his harmonic palette or takes particular cognizance of the many changes in music in the first half of the 20th century: he is unabashedly faithful to the Romantic spirit and the virtuoso piano techniques associated with it. Again in this concerto, he fails to create any particularly memorable themes, but he works with his material here with more-pointed skill than in the earlier concerto, and the piece feels better proportioned. And the slow movement, marked Adagio – Poco rubato, does not come across as a byway or afterthought, but as a warm and rather thoughtful contemplation between the outer movements. Concerto No. 2 may be just too backward-looking to attract the attention of contemporary pianists; but here again, Gülbadamova and Matiakh show clear understanding of the work’s provenance and structure, and work together to produce a finely balanced, very well-played performance that shows the concerto in the best possible light. Neither concerto is anywhere near as much fun as the Variations on a Nursery Tune, which pays tribute to some composers of the early 20th century and gently satirizes others: the two concertos are serious, intense works that are “big” in every sense. That makes them challenging to play and, in truth, to hear: they are well-made and worthwhile for occasional listening, but there is little in them distinctive enough to make them stand out from other late-Romantic (or post-late-Romantic) assertions for piano and orchestra.

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