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Dohnanyi: Variations on a Nursery Song, Symphonic Minutes / Nebolsin, Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic

Dohnanyi / Nebolsin / Falletta / Bfpo
Release Date: 05/25/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572303   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ernö von Dohnányi
Performer:  Eldar Nebolsin
Conductor:  JoAnn Falletta
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DOHNÁNYI Symphonic Minutes, op. 36. Variations on a Nursery Song, op. 25 1. Suite in f?, op. 19 JoAnn Falletta, cond; Buffalo P; 1 Eldar Nebolsin (pn) NAXOS 8572303 (69:39)

Two things I’ve mentioned in past reviews with respect to Erno Read more Dohnányi are that (1) I’m not as familiar as I could or perhaps should be with his work; and (2) the more of his music I hear the higher he rises in my esteem. That being said, one could hardly have inhabited this planet for very long without having encountered the composer’s Variations on a Nursery Song . It remains by far his best-known and most popular composition, and with this piece I can claim more than passing familiarity. In fact, contrary to my declared limited acquaintance with the composer’s output, I do have access to alternative performances of all three works on this disc spread between two CDs in Matthias Bamert’s Dohnányi cycle for Chandos: 9733 contains both the Variations and the Suite, and 9455 contains the Symphonic Minutes coupled with the composer’s Second Symphony. Both of these recordings are now 15 years old but still very competitive.

Taking the pieces in the order they appear on the new Naxos disc, timings between Bamert’s Symphonic Minutes (14: 35) and Falletta’s (14:58) are too close to make a critical difference. Written in 1933 and dedicated to the Budapest Philharmonic Society, the work, like others written for a given orchestra—Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances composed for the Philadelphia Orchestra comes to mind—is a virtuoso showpiece designed to showcase the ensemble’s players. Accordingly, Dohnányi’s work employs a large ensemble augmented by a battery of colorful percussion instruments that includes triangle, snare drum, suspended cymbal, bass drum, glockenspiel, and celesta. Bass clarinet and English horn enhance the wind section. It’s a delightful piece in five movements that combines elements of a suite with a concerto for orchestra.

In a blind listening test between Bamert and Falletta, I’m not sure the differences are significant enough to advise you to chuck Bamert in favor of Falletta, or that Falletta is an essential complement to Bamert. The new Naxos recording is perhaps a bit more acoustically atmospheric than the Chandos, and Falletta’s Buffalo band sounds a tad more alert and into the swing of the thing than Bamert’s more slightly reserved BBC Philharmonic crew, but both do very well by the piece.

It’s the Variations on a Nursery Song , next up on the disc, which tips the balance for me in favor of Falletta, for she has in Eldar Nebolsin a rather more lively and witty pianist than Bamert has in Howard Shelley. The distinguished Shelley has of course been a reliable team player for Hyperion’s “Romantic Piano Concerto” project, every volume of which I’ve enjoyed immensely. But Nebolsin brings to Dohnányi’s score a childlike innocence I find very disarming. You can hear it in his initial entrance where he plays the “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” tune in a way that reminded me of a baby prattling away to the tinkling of a music-box. Shelley doesn’t manage “cute” in a Playtex diaper quite as adorably as Nebolsin does. There’s more to this 1914 piece, of course, than pablum and Pampers, but in each of the variations I felt Falletta and Nebolsin were more in tune with each other and with Dohnányi’s romper room romp.

The Suite in F# Minor, completed in 1909, is the earliest written piece on the disc, so that the program is presented in reverse chronological order. Here there may be more of a difference between recordings, with Falletta taking a printed track timing of 30:18 to Bamert’s 28:08. But it’s hard to tell exactly because Naxos provides separate tracks (10 in all) for each segment of the piece, while Chandos bands the piece on four tracks. Thus, Falletta’s somewhat longer cumulative timing may be due more to the pauses between tracks than it is to significant variances in tempos within them. Listening to both performances, I hear only very slight differences, which, in my opinion, do not alter the balance between the two readings. Both are very good.

The structure of the piece is interesting and suggests to me that Chandos got the banding of it right, for it’s a suite in name only. The work easily breaks down into a four-movement symphony in which the first movement is a theme and set of six variations, the second movement a scherzo, the third movement a romanze ( andante poco moto ), and the finale a rondo ( allegro vivace ). Though I can’t think of one off the top of my head, I’d be willing to bet that there’s at least one symphony with a first movement theme and variations instead of a sonata form that was written by someone sometime before 1909, the year of Dohnányi’s suite, so the idea probably wasn’t that radical. You can flood the Letters column with your examples in the next issue.

Performance-wise, I’d have to call it a draw between Falletta and Bamert in the Symphonic Minutes and the suite, but the Variations on a Nursery Song with Nebolsin, the characterful and exceptionally disciplined playing of the Buffalo Philharmonic under Falletta, and the impressive sound of the Naxos recording tip the balance in favor of the new release. Add to that Naxos’s budget price, and you have a disc that’s impossible not to recommend.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins


It's sad that these pieces aren't performed more often; even the delicious Variations seems to have fallen by the wayside. Ernö von Dohnányi was a marvelous composer, one of the few with a genuine musical sense of humor, and God only knows how rare that is. The Variations start with one of the great anti-climaxes in all of Romantic orchestral music, while the finale of the Suite has a delightful episode in which a fit of Spanish bravura (played here with great élan) suddenly breaks out, castanets and all. Symphonic Minutes might not be enticingly named, but the music offers a quarter hour of pure pleasure.

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic play this music really well, and they are lucky to have a piano soloist in Eldar Nebolsin more than up to the formidable task that Dohnányi sets for him. The etude-like variation for piano and winds moves with effortless virtuosity and excellent balances between solo and orchestra, while the "Sorcerer's Apprentice meets Danse macabre" variation features some true, humorously grotesque moments (great bassoons). It all builds to an impressively passionate climax leading to the brilliant final fugue. As already mentioned, Falletta handles the Suite with plenty of character. Both here and in Symphonic Minutes the orchestra projects the music's vivid colors with unaffected clarity. Very good sound too. An excellent disc from every perspective.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Symphonic Minutes, Op. 36 by Ernö von Dohnányi
Conductor:  JoAnn Falletta
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1933; Budapest, Hungary 
Variations on a Nursery Song for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25 by Ernö von Dohnányi
Performer:  Eldar Nebolsin (Piano)
Conductor:  JoAnn Falletta
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914; Berlin, Germany 
Suite for Orchestra in F sharp minor, Op. 19 by Ernö von Dohnányi
Conductor:  JoAnn Falletta
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1908-1909; Berlin, Germany 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  3 Customer Reviews )
 LOOK OUT BELOW!!!! October 27, 2014 By Zita Carno (Tampa, FL) See All My Reviews "I never had occasion to play this piece, but I certainly enjoy hearing it, and the other day I heard it on my favorite TV station, Classical Masterpieces. And from the very start I burst out laughing and could not stop till the end. What Dohnanyi has done to this innocent little baby tune (Mozart refers to it as Ah, vous dirai-je Maman) is a caution and a half. Right from the get-go he tears into Wagner and tears it apart---the Flying Dutchman, the Ride of the Valkyries (complete with "Hey, watch where you're going, you skyhog!"), the stumbling of the gods as they enter Valhalla, and Siegfried's Rhine journey---oh yeah, Lohengrin and Tannhauser---all to set the listener up for the innocent little baby tune, and then he goes after the tune itself. Waltzes---no, not Johann, but Richard, bits from Der Rosenkavalier and the dance-song sequence from Also Sprach, and maybe even Brahms, something from the last movement of the fourth symphony...the little tinkling variation in the high register of the piano suggesting a message from outer space...Elgar, even, something from one of his two Wand of Youth suites? It's obvious that Dohnanyi was having a devilish good time, and I'm very much surprised that the performers were not cracking up as well. One day I will get a CD of this work; JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Phil do a crackerjack job of it and the other works on it." Report Abuse
 Excellent playing of rarely recorded piece October 10, 2014 By Bruce B. (Bradenton , FL) See All My Reviews "The Variations On a Nursery Song are rarely heard in concert today. I have heard periodic recordings of it on radio for years, each time bringing a refreshing addition to the program of usual concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff. etc. I am an intense lover of classical piano, and I love hearing a variety of composers. This recording of the Dohnanyi is an outstanding pianistic performance, capturing the best of romantic piano concerto style, but also conveying a satiric sense of humor that is the wonderful aspect of the Dohnanyi piece. I can see some listeners on hearing it for the first time saying "should I take this piece seriously or not"? I suggest taking it both ways --- it is superb piano writing outstandingly performed." Report Abuse
 Great music, Japanese text (!) April 25, 2013 By Cynthia M. (Washougal, WA) See All My Reviews "The music is great but all the text in the download is in Japanese. Yes, really! What a mess to deal with!" Report Abuse
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