Saturday, June 12, 2010

Erno Dohnanyi: Piano Concerto #1 is another "youth" masterpiece: did it set the stage for Rachmaninoff?

In 2002, Warner Brothers Television (now CWTV) launched a dramatic series called “Everwood” in which a major subplot concerns the career, eventually suspended, of a teen piano prodigy (Ephram Brown, played by Gregory Smith), and later a second pianist Kyle Hunter (Steve McQueen Jr.), whose character could inspire a sequel if WB wanted to create one.

Later on in the same “00” decade I had the pleasure to learn about the careers of a couple young musicians and composers whom I’ve covered here, including Tudor Dominilk Maican and Timothy Andres.

So naturally one goes back to the classical literature and looks beyond the most famous prodigy, Mozart, to other composers who wrote important works while young. Maybe one of the best known is Richard Strauss, and in fact Arnold Schoenberg wrote most of his post-romantic Gurrelieder in his early or mid twenties.

One piece I’ve talked about here is the first piano concerto of Eugen d’Albert, an essentially late teen composition, but another post-romantic who wrote influential music by his early twenties is Ernst von Dohnanyi, with Hungarian name “Erno Dohnany”.

Dohnany was a student of d’Albert, and his Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor, Op. 5, all 46 minutes, at first seems like a homage to the style of the young Brahms. The somber orchestra opening is said to be inspired by Brahms’s First Symphony (to me it echoes Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude), but soon a second subject (“G# -- A G# F# G#---“) is even more noble (as was true of the stormy first movement of Brahms’s own First Piano Concerto, composed at age 25). In fact, Dohnanyi likes broad themes in whole notes, with the soloist building configurations in triplets underneath.

The Dohanyi Concerto really does have three separate movements, more or less, with the first coming to a quiet close, but they are thematically interrelated. He tends to like improvisatory forms, as if inspired by Liszt. In the finale, he takes a cue from d’Albert and provides a most original cadenza, the “middle” of the movement, with orchestra. Afterwards, he then clearly takes us into an area that Rachmaninoff would master in his own finales: he takes a “scherzando” theme (as did d’Albert did after his own cadenza) in compound meter and prepares us for a “big tune” (after some quotes from the hymn “Immortal Invisible”) that is like this: “B – C#_B E F# G#” (I don’t know how you write music staffs in Blogger or Wordpress yet, but I suspect if I hunt I’ll find a way).

Here we’re in the same emotional world as Rachmaninoff whose Second Concerto (in 1900, a few years later) would do the same thing, and which would Rachmaninoff would perfect in his masterpiece, his Third Piano Concerto in D Minor. Note that Rachmaninoff would write his concerti in separate movements but would provide plenty of modulatory transition between them. But it’s Rachmaninoff whom we generally give credit to for the “Big Tune” ending (sort of your “As Time Goes By” from Warner Brothers’s Casablanca trademark, which sounds like piano concerto music from film noir) – where the “chills and fever” is followed by one more prestissimo race to the finish. So it is here with Dohanyi: the majestic hymn (which tries to overreach itself in the brass) is followed by one more return of the scherzando in prestissimo virtuosity, racing to the end. And now the piano writing, rather than echoing early Brahms and some Liszt (in the leggerio passages) really sounds frankly like Rachmaninoff. I’m convinced that Rachmaninoff knew the d’Albert and Dohanyi concerti pretty well and could not have written the Second and Third Concertos, now so established in every concert pianist’s repertoire, without them.

Let us not forget another early Dohanyi masterpiece, the Piano Quintet in C Minor, Op. 1, dated 1895 (when the composer would have turned 18). The piece cries out for a full symphony orchestra, however. The finale seems to use 5/4 time inventively before building up to a frenzy again, to close with a famous and majestic “A-men”. Will Dumbarton Concerts bring this work to Washington some time with one of its guest chamber works. If so, it would be an interesting pairing with Maican or any other composer today in his twenties.

The Dohnanyi Piano Concerto #1 is paired with #2 (1947, to me not as interesting and rather like Prokofiev) on Hugaraton (date 1994) with pianist Laszlo Baranyay and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gyorgy Gyorivanyi-Rath. The back of the CD gives the key of the second concerto as B Minor (which I think is correct) but the inner notes say B-flat minor.

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