Variations on a Nursery Song
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Ernő DohnAnyi had a long career as an important composer, pianist and teacher. Deeply indebted to the Germanic Romantic tradition, the works on this disc showcase his love of scintillating orchestral tone-colour-notably of brass, wind and percussion-
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The Katchen recording still deserves a place of honor -- and I still have it in my collection. But among the newer recordings of the Variations, you can't go wrong with this splendid interpretation by pianist Eldar Nebolsin, ably supported by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. In some respects, pianist Nebolsin brings out more contrast in the (deliberately) contrasting sections that Ernst von Dohnanyi incorporated into this music -- from the "sturm-und-drang" introduction to the Viennese waltz sequence, the "clattering bones" scherzo, and the pathos of the passacaglia. (One must remember that composer Dohnanyi had "tongue firmly in cheek" as he created each of these elaborate variations on the simple "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" theme.)
Conductor Falletta and the BPO provide rich and sympathetic accompaniment in the Variations. Maestra Falletta is a Dohnanyi specialist -- and it clearly shows here. (She is also featured in another NAXOS disk of the two Violin Concerti of Dohnanyi -- an equally impressive recording.)
For the remaining works on the program, I am particularly impressed with the "Suite in F-Sharp." This music used to be quite popular on concert programs "back in the day." In fact, the first recording of this music dates back to the early 1930s when RCA Victor recorded it with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the early years of stereo, the Sir Malcolm Sargent and Milton Katims recordings were the ones to have. Here, Maestra Falletta and the BPO turn in a superlative performance, wonderfully rich and vital. Even the third movement (Romance), sometimes overshadowed by the outer movements as well as the puckish Scherzo movement, is revealed here to be quite the musical gem.
Falletta and the BPO are equally effective in the shorter suite "Symphonic Minutes," which again presents Dohnanyi's mastery of melody and orchestration -- capped by a thrilling final Rondo which seems a whole lot faster than it could ever be danced to ("prestissimo" is more like it!).
As for recent alternative readings of these works to choose from, in my opinion the only other recording that seriously rivals this program is Matthias Bamert's Chandos recording with the BBC Philharmonic. (That one contains the "Nursery Variations" with Howard Shelley along with the "Suite in F-Sharp"; for the "Symphonic Minutes," you'll have to purchase a different Bamert recording that also contains Dohnanyi's Symphony No. 2, another fine composition from the composer's later years.)
The tie-breaker might be the fact that NAXOS's midline price beats Chandos by a mile -- so particularly for those who may not be very familiar with the music of Dohnanyi, I can't think of a better place to start than here.
Eldar Nebolsin once again proves himself to be an excellent pianist indeed. His Chopin recordings have already provided many a fine illumination, and his performance on this disc deserves nothing but the highest praise. Sir Georg Solti, during his student days a pupil of Dohnanyi at the Budapest School of Music, often descibed him as brilliant - but also the laziest pianist he knew. Solti took paticular delight in an anecdote from one of Dohnanyi's foreign tours, during which in three consecutive performances of a Beethoven concerto he lost his way at the exact same spot and had to improvise the rest of the movement. Leaving the stage the third night he was, allegedly, heard murmuring: "I should probably take the time some day to learn that piece." Dohnanyi may not have known his Beethoven, but Nebolsin sure knows his Dohnanyi - in and out.
The Symphonic Minutes and the Suite are rarely played but thoroughly delightful works, well worth the attention. JoAnn Faletta's direction is full to the brim with passion as well as an admirable attention to detail.
A feast for all senses - warmly recommended.
The other works on this disc are good, but less distinctive, the first, Symphonic Minutes, provides five brief movements which are breezy and quick, with fun and catchy tunes.
Overall, a very fun and entertaining disc.
The CD begins with a bonus; Dohnanyi's Symphonic Moments for orchestra.The Buffalo Philharmonic plays with precision and sonic clarity thorough the entire recording. The sound is beautifully captured by the marvelous acoustics of the orchestra's home concert hall, Kleinhans Music Hall, which is recognized as an architectural and acoustic masterpiece. The hall designed by Eliel Saarinen with his son, Eero Saarinen, marked it's 75th anniversary in 2015.
Overall, this a CD well worth hearing, it is a delightful collection of music by a Hungarian composer who has been unduly neglected. The musicianship of Nebolsin, Falleta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra bring out the endearing qualities of these works.