Dohnanyi: Variations on a Nursery Song etc. - Dohnanyi, Starker
Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 250 231
Classical - Orchestral
Erno Dohnanyi: Variations on a Nursery Song Op. 25, Konzertstück in D major Op. 12, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B minor Op. 42
Erno Dohnanyi (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult (conductor)
Janos Starker (cello)
Walter Süsskind (conductor)
It is difficult to think of Dohnányi as a contemporary of Kodály and Bártok – his music is so much of the earlier generation of Post-Romantics. He has developed from Brahms, after as Richard Strauss, instead of reacting against these influences. Apart from his career as a concert pianist – one of the last of the great pianist-composers following the tradition from Liszt to Rachmaninov – he has held a wide variety of professional and administrative positions, ranging from his professor-ship of the Berlin Hochschule, in 1908, through the conductorship of the Budapest Philharmonic. He has served as director of the Budapest Conservatoire, director of the Hungarian Broadcasting Corporation, and, his last post, composer-in-residence at Florida State University. During this final period, he has appeared all over the world as a pianist, and recorded some basic masterworks of his repertoire.
Review by John Miller - June 18, 2008
Here's a kettle of fish! Nowhere on the insert leaflets or disc label is there any indication from Praga that these offerings are from 1956/7 and are not recent DSD recordings. The names of the performers would alert the cognoscenti to an early date of recording, but neophytes could easily be deceived. Only on the last page of the booklet is there an imprimatur which informs us that this is "Renewed, DSD - BiChannel Mastering", and at the foot of the page in small lettering is added, "Originally Recorded No1Studio (sic), Abbey Road, London, September 1956 1957. Producer: Lawrance" and here the line seems to be truncated. There is no further information about the origin of the material, which media it came from and what processing was involved. Further baffling English prose arises in the notes. Praga have also failed to correct their standard line on the back insert which insists that this stereo-only disc is a "multi-channel Hybrid SACD".
Looking up the Dohnányi discography at http://www.zti.hu/dohnanyi/en/docs/discography.htm, the Nursery Variations and the Second Piano Concerto apparently come from Angel 35538 (1956) and the Konzertstück with Starker and Susskind from Angel 35627 (EMI 568 745 2) (1958).
The back insert tells us their motivation for this unusual issue. "Homage to Erno Dohnányi the great pianist and composer called 'The Hungarian Brahms' while PRAGA DIGITALIS is finishing the complete recording of his chamber music. He carried out a famous career as performer with a style of a rigorous classicism even his touch points out that of Rachmaninov and lets (sic) see affinities with Richard Strauss modern orchestration' (sic). The execrable English here and elsewhere in the booklet indicates a careless presentation of this project, which seems not to have been thought through thoroughly.
'Variations on a Nursery Song' is one of classical music's greatest humorous pieces. A piano concerto but not in name, its variations take as theme an unassuming children's tune (known as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to English-speakers and "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman" to French-speakers). Beginning with an over-blown and portentous introduction of Wagnerian proportions and sonority, bathos descends with the pianist quietly replying with the banal nursery ditty in simple unison. A masterly set of variations follow, in which various musical styles (and fashionable composers) of the time (1914) are parodied in juicy and wicked send-ups. These are both delectably luscious and beautifully orchestrated, making this Dohnányi's most famous composition.
Listening to the grand opening of the Praga disinterment, it is obvious that this is an elderly recording, despite SACD processing. Only about a half of the RPO seems to have turned up, and there are some odd sounds - the oboes in particular have an extraordinary squeaking timbre. Violins sound generally papery and brass quite hard. Flutes often have either a very heavy vibrato or are subject to tape flutter. The horns are not always in good tune (or there is tape flutter affecting them also at times), and in a few of the variations they seem to be broadcasting forth from a separate room at back left of the orchestra. The overall standard, although pleasant enough, is not up to that of many of the other restorations which have been conjured from archives of similar vintage. The stereo effect is good, however and the piano tone is quite passable.
Not having heard other performances of this work from the several recorded by the composer before his death in 1960 (some also with Boult), I find it hard to judge, but my general impression is that Dohnányi plays what is a rather 'camp' piece quite straight, although admitting a twinkle of humour. The undemonstrative Boult too was also capable of 'twinkle', but this performance didn't manage to either engage or enchant me as this music often has in other hands. It didn't help that at times there seemed to be some discrepancies between soloist and orchestra in interpreting Boult's usually steady beat. In the charming var. 6 for example, the rhythmic clockwork imitation produced by a rather harried harpist and a soloist often playing left hand before right was in danger going seriously awry.
It was quite a shock to move to the Konzertstück. I found it very hard to tell if this was a stereo recording or not, as all the orchestral sound is lined up in the centre, behind Starker's cello - just like mono. The cello is very well forward, so while Starker is playing, the Philharmonia seem to make generalised sounds in the distance, although in tuttis there are some indications of a rich Philharmonia string sound, but this became glaring in loud high passages. There are squeaky oboes here, too. However, Starker warmly embraces this improvisatory and sometimes rather wandering piece, relishing its Straussian/Korngoldian bitter-sweetness. In the long run, though, this is a piece which you can love while it is playing, but little remains in the memory afterwards. Certainly Janos Starker's committed playing is very good, but to really enjoy this piece you need the ripe orchestral sound that it deserves.
The same applies to the Piano Concerto in B min, which is more modern in style and has dazzling displays of Dohnanyi's virtuosity. Here, the mono effect remains, and the sound is quite poor. The impression is gained that this item derived from an LP master rather than tape, as there is constant pulsing lower mid-frequency background noise, frequent patches of 'frying' and not infrequent clicks and pops. Distortion is on the high side, as you realise when the opening string flourish positively screeches at you. The brass also become distorted when in full cry. The fragile piano sound is generally thin, and pinging-notes played in the top-most range sound like breaking glass. At climaxes, everything distorts terribly and the sound is just plain nasty. In the face of this, I find it hard to judge either the music or the performance, except to say that, heard live, both would probably impress me. No information is given about why the Concerto and the Variations are presented here with such different recording qualities, given that they were paired on the original LP. Much better sound has been gleaned from mono recordings of the 1930's.
If this is a one-off side-track in Praga's Dohnányi chamber music series, I find it to have been clumsily prepared and misleadingly presented. If they are to issue more restorations from the EMI catalogue, I hope they would be prominently marked as refurbishments on the packaging, and full details given of the media and processing techniques. Oddly, in the present case, the CD-Layer was easier to listen to than the SACD layer - a case of 'when you open the window, more dirt flies in?'
Only archivists and those with nostalgic attachments to these particular vintage recordings will really want this. There are plenty of good (and better) RBCD performances which will suffice until new SACD recordings are made.
Marking was difficult, particularly for the wide variations in recording quality, which I have averaged.
Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net