DOHNÁNYI: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 5. Ruralia Hungarica, Op. 32b
Howard Shelley, pianist; BBC Philharmonic Orch/Mathias Bamert, cond.
CHANDOS 9649 (F) (DDD) TT: 68 min.

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, a.k.a “Twinkle, 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 non troppo, 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 more 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 lacks is 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)