Dohnanyi: Variations on a Nursery Song (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Minutes; Suite in F sharp minor, Op. 19. Eldar Nebolsin, piano; JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572303.

Erno (or Ernst) von Dohnanyi (1877-1960) was one of those twentieth-century throwbacks to the Romantic Age who continued to produce lush, melodic music long after it had gone out of style. He was a Hungarian composer, conductor, pianist, and teacher who came into disfavor with his government in the 1940's and moved to America. Today, we probably know him best for his Variations on a Nursery Song, which forms the centerpiece for this 2010 album, ably performed by pianist Eldar Nebolsin, conductor JoAnn Falletta, and the Buffalo Philharmonic.

The first selection on the disc, however, is Dohnanyi's Symphonic Minutes (1933).  It is a light, airy piece, sounding a lot like ballet music. The five movements are quite rhapsodic, yet sparkling, too, with an entertaining section for percussion. It is brief at only about fifteen minutes and firmly rooted in the German Romantic tradition of Beethoven and Brahms the composer knew best. Yet it also leans considerably toward the expressionism of Debussy and Ravel, at least in the gentle manner Falletta and her orchestra approach it.

The second selection of three on the disc is the central item, the Variations on a Nursery Song (1914) for piano and orchestra. It is humorous and charming in its deliberately contentious juxtaposition of heavy Wagnerian moods and children's nursery rhymes. Think of Mahler and Mother Goose in the same room. My introduction to the music came in the early Seventies with an EMI recording by pianist Christina Ortiz, still available on various budget and mid-priced EMI CD collections and still a top choice.

In the Variations, Dohnanyi presents a children's theme, "Ah, vous dirai-fe, Maman" (known to most of us as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"), with eleven variations, plus an introduction and a conclusion. Ms. Falletta and pianist Eldar Nebolsin appear to be having a good time with the music, again caressing it gently, with a particularly felicitous waltz section and a virtuosic performance from Nebolsin in the finale.

The concluding selection is Dohnanyi's Suite in F sharp minor, Op. 19 (1908-09). Like its companions on the disc, it is a series of variations, this time set within a conventional four-movement arrangement. The variations themselves form a movement practically of their own directly following (or a part of) the opening Andante and before the closing Scherzo, Romanza, and Rondo-Allegro. This earliest of the pieces on the program is also the longest (at about thirty minutes) and the most somber. In addition, it is the least distinctive of the works, serious to a fault, and not as memorable as the other two. However, there is a delightful third variation, appropriately marked and played Andante tranquillo, quite beautiful taken on its own. The Scherzo and the Rondo have a Mendelssohnian feel to them, and Falletta and company play them most agreeably, with plenty of gusto in the concluding percussion work.

The Naxos sound, recorded in 2008, is almost nondescript. There is certainly nothing wrong with it; it's just that there isn't much about it that stands out. The frequency range and dynamic response are fine, but without being too extended. Clarity is fine as well, without being particularly transparent. Stage depth is somewhat two-dimensional, and a slight softening hides some of the midrange behind a thin, dull veil. So don't expect the disc to sound exactly of audiophile quality, just pleasantly relaxing.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa