DOHNÁNYI: American Rhapsody, Op. 47.  Harp Concertino, Op. 45.  Romanza (from Serenade in C, Op. 10).  Violin Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 43.  Wedding Waltz, Op. 18 No. 4
Janice Graham, violin; Lucy Wakeford, harp; English Sinfonia/John Farrer, cond.

ASV DCA 1107 (F) (DDD) TT:  71:23
Brahms. Artistic revolutions have a way of carting every non-Jacobin off to the guillotine on their way to the New Jerusalem. However, the New Jerusalem never seems to arrive, and eventually people begin to wonder whatever happened to dear old Uncle Fred. I must confess that I kind of like this arrangement. I like that things get shaken up and that something forces me to change my gaze. I like forgetting, because the chief pleasure of forgetting something is recalling it again and listening with a new point of hearing.

Dohnányi, who died in 1960, comes from the generation slightly before Bartók and Kodály, and the bulk of his music is absolutely contemporaneous with the younger men, though you'd probably not guess that from the music itself, which generally takes a post-Brahmsian line. Mostly, he raises the Zigeuner element from the Brahms Hungarian Dances and the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies, pretty much as Brahms does in the last movements of his violin concerto and g-minor piano quartet. In his late period, he incorporated a bit of circa-1900 Richard Strauss as well. In short, with a combination of stubbornness and brilliance my great-uncle Barney used to ascribe to his fellow Hungarians, he kept turning out the equivalent of Victorian love-seats in an age of Swedish Modern. Bartók and Kodály themselves (especially Bartók) tended to dismiss him as a fossil, although they recognized his importance to Hungarian musical life and their careers benefited from his help. However, the anachronistic nature of his work matters less and less as time goes on, just as it no longer really matters whether Bach and Telemann are "progressive" or "conservative."

The level of Dohnányi's output goes up and down, from really good to a bit loose. At his best, I think him wonderful, thoroughly deserving of a slot in people's consciousness. Time was, when the only things you could find were the Konzertstük for cello and orchestra, the Variations on a Nursery Tune, and the Serenade for String Trio. I'm glad CD companies have begun to explore his catalogue.

The "Romanza" movement from Dohnányi's Serenade appears here in a non-composer arrangement for strings. It's a gorgeous movement, but the arrangement itself strikes me as pointless. One of the movement's marvels is hearing a full, lush sound from only three instruments.

The American Rhapsody, Dohnányi's musical love-letter to the United States, where he finally settled, is a real rhapsody unlike, say, Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (really a set of variations). Such "trick" rhapsodies have grown on us so much, we may forget that we shouldn't expect a great deal of organization from them. At best, Dohnányi's rhapsody is a quodlibet of American tunes, folk and otherwise. It begins with the bones of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (as perfect for the opening of such things as baseball games as "God Save the Queen" is for the end of a night at the movies). But Dohnányi conflates the anthem with "On Top of Old Smokey," and shows us something about the musical structure of both tunes most of us didn't know before. We get an extended rumination on "Wayfaring Stranger," and then a simultaneous discussion of "I Gave My Love a Cherry" and "Turkey in the Straw." "Sir Roger de Coverley," the British (Irish?) tune which survived among Appalachian fiddlers furnishes most of the material in the rush toward the finish line, along with "Betsy from Pike" and two other tunes I can't identify, The work ends on a quick brass blaze of "Old Smokey." None of this, of course, sounds anything like what we've come to accept as American, and indeed one commentator has pointed out Hungarian dance figures in the underbrush of the accompaniment. We might rename the piece A Magyar in Tallahassee. I prefer Farrer's version to Alun Francis's on cpo, which tries to inflate the piece in search of its Importance and which doesn't dance nearly so well. Farrer has much more fun and finds more real poetry, besides.

The Harp Concertino is the last of Dohnányi's concerted works. It's one of his most "advanced," leaning more toward Richard Strauss in harmonic idiom and orchestration than to Brahms, and as such shows the limitations of that idiom for solo harp music. It's a lovely piece of music, but the cello, oboe, flute, and horn take most of the interest away from the harp. The harp becomes more of an orchestral "color," as it does in composers like Strauss and Korngold, with surprisingly few opportunities in the spotlight. The French apparently understand the harp more than Germans do. Especially compared to Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, Dohnányi's harp comes off second-best in a contest of non-equals.

The waltz from The Veil of Pierrette claims nothing more than a place at the table for great light music. The theater piece (libretto by Schindler) and the rest of Dohnányi's incidental music has fallen into oblivion, but the waltz became one of Dohnányi's minor hits. The Strausses, any of them, would probably have loved to have written it.

However, the major work here, the second violin concerto, leaves all of this behind. Dohnányi writes at the top of his game and brings off a work impressive in its symphonic architecture. In a piece filled with unusual features, the omission of orchestral violins may be one of the oddest. Apparently, the composer was struck by the thought of a single violinist on stage. On the other hand, you don't miss the other violins. The limitation becomes an opportunity. Dohnányi creates a darker-than-usual sound without thickness and finds unusual ways to leaven the sound, including extensive use of the harp and more bare textures, with the high winds combined with low strings. The first movement contains many motives, mostly combined in first subject group and second subject group. A fanfare motive will have great consequences later on. Much of the development consists of an extensive fugato, which may or may not derive from the first subject group (without a score I can't say for sure) and which seamlessly leads back to a recapitulation. The second movement, a brief, impish scherzo, picks its way through some head-snapping chord progressions, in a turn-of-the-century way, but at a high level of inspiration. The slow movement is for me the hardest to get. There are some gorgeous passages but some dead wood as well. For me, the most remarkable passage, a transition to the third movement, a kind of accompanied cadenza which recapitulates the fanfare idea from the first subject group of the first movement and adumbrates the main theme of the rondo-finale (itself derived from the first-movement fugato), raises the musical level back to its former glory. From there on, the composer bounds to the end, with one more surprise up his sleeve: another accompanied cadenza, this time with four horns.

I have another performance of this: violinist Mark Kaplan and conductor Lawrence Foster on Koch. They do a great job, but so do Graham and Farrer. There's little to prefer one over the other. They differ slightly in that Kaplan and Foster give the concerto more weight, whereas Graham and Foster sing more sweetly. ASV's recorded sound is a bit bright, but acceptable.

S.G.S. (May 2002)