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Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Piano Quintet No. 1 in c minor, op. 1 (1895) [29:34]
Serenade for string trio, op. 10 (1902) [21:35]
Piano Quintet No. 2 in e flat minor, op. 26 (1914) [24:38]
The Schubert Ensemble of London
rec. 1995, All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London
Originally released as CDA66786

Piano Quintet No. 1 in c minor, op. 1 (1895) [29:20]
Piano Quintet No. 2 in e flat minor, op. 26 (1914) [24:55]
Gottlieb Wallisch (piano)
Ensö String Quartet
rec. 2007, Glenn Gould Studio, CBC, Toronto, Ontario
NAXOS 8.570572 [54:15]

The Hungarian Ernő Dohnányi is one of those composers whose name remains on the periphery: not forgotten but not in the mainstream. The majority of his compositions have multiple recordings: Chandos and Naxos particularly have done well by him. The Serenade for string trio leads the way with at least fifteen currently available recordings, according to Arkivmusic.

Neither of these two recordings are new as you can see from their dates, but the Naxos is a new release, from late 2014, whereas the Hyperion was a re-issue in 2012. Why it took Naxos seven years to be release this is one of those mysteries of the recording industry.

Quintet No. 1 is a work of the teenage Dohnányi and, as such, is astonishingly mature. Indeed, on first listening, without knowing its background, it would be easy to imagine that this was the first of a sixty-year old, given its general mellow, autumnal mood. The first movement is simply gorgeous, with clear influences of Brahms. The scherzo is less interesting, though the central trio again reveals the composer’s intrinsic gift for melody. The Adagio quasi andante is an exercise in restrained passion, while the rondo finale features a Hungarian folk melody, given a Viennese waltz flavour, before a Brahmsian ending. There aren’t so many piano quintets in the repertoire that this fine work should be so little known, though admittedly, the competition from Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak is rather fierce.

Quintet No. 2 is a quite different work, reflecting the development in Dohnányi’s style. While still Romantic in nature, it is much less mellow than the first, darker and more intense. It dispenses with a scherzo and adagio, instead employing an intermezzo, which often implies something light and melodious, but this one is quite reserved and serious. The final movement is a complete contrast to that of the first quintet, which bordered on light music. Here, with the piano taking a back-seat to the strings, the tempo is relatively slow (moderato), the mood sad and the melodies quite restrained. This work was written contemporaneously with the outbreak of World War I: the impact of that on the composer is very clear.

As mentioned, the Serenade is the most often recorded of Dohnányi’s works, just ahead of the Nursery Song Variations. It harks back to an era before Brahms, showing clear influences of Beethoven and even Mozart, in its thinner textures. It is set in five short movements, beginning with a jaunty march, followed by a quite beautiful Romanza. As it was in the first quintet, the Scherzo is the least impressive of the movements, but it is followed by the best (and longest) – a set of variations which in just over six minutes takes us on quite an intense journey. The Rondo finale is suitably playful.

The performances are very hard to separate, and each does the quintets full justice. In both final movements, the Schubert Ensemble is quicker, and while it isn’t especially apparent in the second quintet, it is certainly so in the first, where they demonstrate much greater snap. I haven’t heard the Hungaroton recording that Brian Wilson describes as “clearly authoritative”, but he does suggest that the Hyperion is not far behind.

Given that the Hyperion re-issue is in the budget Helios line, making it similarly priced to the Naxos, the clear point of distinction is the “bonus” of the very fine Serenade. It seems regrettable that Naxos have left their recording so short in running time when there was an obvious candidate to help fill out the disc capacity. Both releases feature excellent sound and informative booklet notes.

David Barker



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