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Audio Files

Published August 14, 2005

DOHNANYI PLAYS DOHNANYI (APPIAN); MUSIC OF ERNO DOHNANYI (BRIDGE) - Ernst von Dohnanyi is the classical composer with the strongest Florida connection. Displaced from his homeland of Hungary during World War II, Dohnanyi emigrated and eventually landed at Florida State University, where he taught until his death at 82 in 1960. He is buried in Tallahassee; his grandson still lives there and was instrumental in establishing the Dohnanyi archives at FSU.

A Dohnanyi revival has been under way the past few years, and most of his major works are available on disc, such as Variations on a Nursery Song, which has fun with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; his orchestral masterpiece, the Suite in F-sharp; the knuckle-busting Six Concert Etudes for piano; and the Serenade for string trio.

Now two more releases fill out the Dohnanyi catalog. Most important is an Appian double-CD of Dohnanyi playing his solo piano works, recorded between 1929 and 1956.

No narrative program, no compositional system, no ideological points to make - just purely beautiful music. That's what Dohnanyi was all about, as heir to the legacy of Schumann and Brahms. His old-world approach is on display in the lost art of piano transcriptions from orchestral, ballet and opera scores, with vintage performances of Delibes' Coppelia waltz and a pair of Johann Strauss tunes.

In his day, Dohnanyi was more famous as a pianist than a composer, and you can hear why in his playing of Six Piano Pieces, in two sessions from 1946 and 1956. He was virtuosic, yes, but more impressive was his expressive sensitivity, his capacity to communicate a musical atmosphere, even with the occasional finger slip.

In 20th century Hungarian music, Dohnanyi came to be overshadowed by the folk-inspired works of Bartok and Kodaly, and there's no doubt his voice was more conservative and derivative of the German romantic tradition. His lesser music can be cloying. But he also made inventive use of folk songs in his solo piano repertoire, including Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song, Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song and a piece from Ruralia Hungarica, all on the Appian release.

Conductor Leon Botstein has done yeoman labor on behalf of Dohnanyi, touting him as the Hungarian equivalent of Elgar in England and recording his First Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Botstein's American Symphony Orchestra is heard on a Bridge CD in Dohnanyi's appealing Concertino for Harp and Chamber Orchestra, with shimmering solos by harpist Sara Cutler. Written in Tallahassee in 1952, the Concertino would be excellent programming for the Florida Orchestra, which has played little Dohnanyi.

The Bridge release also has the Brahmsian Sextet in C Major and another version of Six Piano Pieces, crisply played by Todd Crow. But why settle for a latter-day interpretation, no matter how expert, when you've got the composer himself playing the piano work not once but twice for Appian? A (Appian); B (Bridge)

- JOHN FLEMING, Times performing arts critic

RACHMANINOV: ALL-NIGHT VIGIL. ESTONIAN PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR, PAUL HILLIER, DIRECTOR. (HARMONIA MUNDI) The most moving musical instrument is the human voice, something the Eastern Orthodox church patriarchs knew when they proscribed all others in liturgical music. From this stricture has arisen choral music of unequaled visceral, intellectual and spiritual impact. Perhaps the best of all those instruments today is the Estonian Chamber Choir, under the direction of English choral maestro Paul Hilliard since 2001. Thirty members strong, the choir is small enough to permit the awareness of individuals within the wondrous ensemble of their singing and large enough to produce hair-raising fortissimo climaxes.

And what music they have to sing! Borrowing as much from folk music as liturgical tradition, Rachmaninov wove a magnificent tapestry that used only the colors of unaccompanied voices. There are no virtuoso fireworks, no operatic arias, no magician behind a screen, only utterly honest, direct and intensely passionate music.

From the foundation-shaking opening Intonation by basso profundo Vladimir Miller to the luminous tribute to Mary that ends the Matins, the hourlong journey will leave you refreshed and hopeful, believing that a species that can produce such beauty might also make peace among its warring factions. A

- JUDITH BUHRMAN, Times correspondent

[Last modified August 11, 2005, 10:08:04]

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