The fourth and final volume of Martin Roscoe's complete Dohnányi cycle for Hyperion focuses both on Dohnányi as virtuoso pianist-composer, and on the traditions and styles he inherited from his principal teachers in Budapest during the 1890s – István Thomán, a favourite student of Liszt, and Hans von Koessler, a devotee of Brahms. For his fin de siècle debuts in Britain and America, a measure of his unshakeable classicism, he offered Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, a work he coincidentally conducted in his final public appearance, at Florida State University at the end of January 1960. A supporter of Bartók and Kodály, he spoke a very different compositional language, happy to write for the piano in a bravura way, essentially middle-European in muscle and gesture. Busoni brought weightier thought, less innocence, to the day, the Russians other worlds of emotion and fantasy, nostalgic, wild and fevered, the French perfumed bouquets. I generalise somewhat...
Here and there the suave pianist beguiling his hosts with cascades of brilliant notes (Opus 41/4) is at the expense of musical interest. But he knows how to impress, how to invest Golden Age clichés with charm and lightness. The note-spinning of some of the 1916 Opus 28 Études has never entirely convinced me: in his booklet note James A. Grymes speaks of Liszt's Transcendental Studies being the “most direct” model of these pieces – but Liszt (likewise his spiritual devotee, Liapunov) never descended into the schoolroom drills and smallness of scale that Dohnányi occasionally gives way to. Martin Roscoe does a sterling job, yet even he sometimes sounds little more than a diligent student in a college practice room, working fingers and hammers relentlessly.
Witness Raff and Reger, Busoni too of course, even more spectacularly, the Suite in the Olden Style (1913) is typical of a particular Romantic homage genre, the Baroque seen through concert-grand lenses. The fourth movement A-minor ‘Sarabande’ is particularly affecting. The early Passacaglia (1899) – in the ‘Dies irae’ key of the fourth of the later Opus 11 Rhapsodies – is another manifestation, not as majestically welded as that closing Brahms's Fourth Symphony (the end, improvised at the London premiere, is on the perfunctory side), nor as mighty as Godowsky's B-minor epic to come in 1927, but, still, the determined visiting card of a twenty-two-year-old with aspirations evidently beyond the comfort roads of the tinsel-and-glitter brigade.
The Six Pieces of 1945 find Dohnányi mixing the familiar (a winsome salon ‘Ländler’, generations out of date but, like Kreisler's excursions, no worse for that) with profounder intimacies – the autobiographical closing ‘Cloches’, E-flat minor again, was written on hearing news of the death of his son (by his second wife) in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp.
The Rondo alla Zingarese, the G-minor Finale of Brahms's First Piano Quartet, was arranged in 1920. Ever the skilled transcriber, Dohnányi rings the changes with brilliance. Whether or not Roscoe, though, has quite the flamboyance and requisite 'bite' needed, I'm less sure. He's best in the more lyrical episodes, but (like many conductors faced similarly with the Schoenberg orchestration) fights shy when the gypsies get going. An American observer, Harrison Griswold Dwight, wrote of a Balkan romani encounter around the time of the Great War. “A music come from far away – from unknown river gorges, from camp-fires glimmering on great plains. There are flashes, too, of light, of song, the playing of shepherds' pipes, the swoop of horsemen, and sudden outcries of savagery.” That mosaic of impressions, feelings and rawness is important to communicate. Brahms in 'Hungarian' mode is always tricky.
Generous length. Efficient production. Slightly more opaque sound-engineering than usual from Ben Connellan.