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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa