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Dohnanyi: String Quartets Nos 1 And 3 / Aviv Quartet

Dohnanyi / Aviv Quartet
Release Date: 02/28/2012 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572569  
Composer:  Ernö von Dohnányi
Performer:  Nathan BraudeSergey OstrovskyEvgenia EpshteinRachel Mercer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Aviv String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 57 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DOHNÁNYI String Quartets: Nos. 1, 3 Aviv Qrt NAXOS 8572569 (57:29)

I’ve always felt that, in a way, Ern? Dohnányi was sort of the common man’s Bartók, a Hungarian composer who used some of the Magyar scales that his younger colleague collected so assiduously on cylinder recordings, but not as astringent or abrasive in his use of them in his music. Of course, to say that is to do some injustice to Bartók, who throughout his career as a composer consciously wrote harmonically and Read more structurally simpler, easier-to-understand pieces like the violin rhapsodies and the Concerto for Orchestra that enhanced his reputation, but the fact remains that most of Bartók’s mature music is thorny and difficult for average listeners to understand while Dohnányi’s is much clearer, particularly in structure.

Such is true of his youthful String Quartet No. 1, but also of his mature Quartet No. 3. Written in 1926, it is very definitely flavored by some of the harmonic influence of Bartók but is much more accessible to the lay listener than any of the latter’s quartets. The key of A Minor pretty much dominates the proceedings, despite a very lovely, insinuating major-key theme in the middle. Yes, some of the music is edgy, the strings scored in close seconds and playing an almost rough rhythmic passage, but Dohnányi keeps bringing the listener back in with his lyric excursions, and even in its edgiest moments he never loses track of an easy-to-follow rhythm. The slow second movement, curiously marked Andante religioso con variazioni, does not seem to be built on any particular religious theme (at least, I find no reference to one in the liner notes), but simply on religious feeling. Despite some very clever and sudden key changes that occur on pivot notes within the chord, the music here is predominantly lyrical and long-lined, even if the theme is a bit elusive and the harmonic changes continually morph and alter it.

I was almost fooled into thinking we had arrived at the third movement when a sudden fast-tempoed theme suddenly popped up at the four-minute mark. After a while, I realized that this scherzo-within-an-andante was itself a variant on the lyrical theme … and what gave it away were those same unusual chord changes! When the slow tempo returns, it is not quite as slow as originally. The third movement, a Vivace giocoso, is a wild ride using even quirkier rhythms and offbeat syncopation.

The First Quartet (1899), according to the liner notes, owes something to Brahms, but I hear it as simply Dohnányi writing in the standard four-movement quartet mold. His own unique approach to melody, and harmony, is already apparent, but I would be the first to admit that his use of themes and his development of them are more conventional here than later. Nevertheless this piece, like the early String Trio, is really delightful. In several moments, particularly the lighthearted final Vivace, there is a closer kinship to Mozart or Mendelssohn than Brahms. Only the unusual chord positions and chord changes, particularly in the middle of the movement when things reach their most unpredictable, immediately place this quartet at the cusp of the 20th century and away from the realm of Mendelssohn.

The Aviv Quartet, a very youthful-looking bunch, approaches this music with an unusually warm, laid-back feeling that is still rhythmically alert and brings out all the subtle humor in the music. Their style emphasizes lyricism above all. The only available competing version of these quartets is a recording by the Kocian Quartet on Praga 250268, a fairly recent CD (2010) that I haven’t heard.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley


I have always thought of Dohnányi as, primarily, an orchestral composer. I suppose this was because the first pieces of his I ever got to know - the only ones I have really got to know - are the Ruralia Hungarica, written twenty-five years after the 1 st Quartet and the even more famous Variations on Nursery Song. In more recent times I have got to know the Second Symphony a little (Chandos CHAN 9455). I have overlooked the chamber music; and I shouldn’t have done. It was indeed with a chamber work, his First Piano Quartet, that he first attracted the attention in 1895 of Brahms whose style can be detected in the First String Quartet. Dohnányi went on to study composition with Eugen D’Albert but it was also as pianist that he initially became known. In 1932 he even recorded some of own piano music.
After teaching in Berlin Dohnányi left Germany in the early days of the First War and went back home to work in Budapest. There he promoted the music of his countrymen especially his friends and fellow folk-song collectors Kodály and Bartók. At the end of his life, like Bartók, he gravitated towards America and is buried at Tallahassee, Florida of all places.
Dohnányi 1 st Quartet has much that is nineteenth century romantic about it in its four movements. Brahms is to be heard as Richard Whitehouse points out in his informative booklet notes. The first movement is in clear sonata-form, but in the second movement I detected a touch of Dvorák. The movement is marked Allegretto grazioso. There are some folk-like elements in the main theme of the third movement a lovely Adagio, and in the drone bass accompaniment to the second theme in the breezy Vivace finale. Although weighing in at nearly half-an-hour the piece, for an early work, did not “outstay its hour”. It delivers a pleasing if somewhat undemanding experience, There were however some slightly quirky modulations, which point to a new way forward.
Along with their many other projects Naxos’s commitment to Dohnányi is noticeable. This is the fifth disc devoted to him in recent times. One can assume that the missing Second Quartet written during the First World War will appear in due course. It appears not to be available anywhere at present.
The Third Quartet, which curiously comes first on the disc, is an important utterance. The booklet notes say that the composer’s “significant handling of form in this piece is paralleled by a new expressive freedom”. I certainly concur but would add that by 1926 just a short time after Ruralia Hungarica’s success Dohnányi had finally found his voice. This quartet has just three movements. In the substantial first the two subjects are dramatically opposed both in terms of mood and key. I felt at times that the Aviv Quartet - beautifully photographed by the way on the back of the booklet - could have characterised these ideas even more firmly. Nevertheless there are some seriously passionate passages and some that are powerfully rhythmic which elicit strong attack and decisive commitment; note the breathless coda.
The second movement demonstrates the refreshing and free-thinking use of form mentioned earlier. It begins with a hymn-like opening, reminding me of a Victorian chant. After some development this falls into a Scherzo of some wit. There follows a strongly emotional passage based over a repeated pedal note. This dies into the opening melody, which is subtly varied and developed, especially in the accompanimental figures. The ending is calm and contented. The finale, by contrast, ends in a syncopated and excitingly rumbustious climax: an exhilarating Vivace giocoso. This is electric stuff at times and the playing likewise. In fact, as so often happens, I felt myself bemused as to why this quartet is not more often played and part of the standard repertoire. Perhaps someone in Hungary could tell us if it’s better known in Budapest.
I can only say that the disc is well worth the required modest investment even if only for the Third Quartet. Nothing about it will disappoint.

-- Gary Higginson, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 3 in A minor, Op. 33 by Ernö von Dohnányi
Performer:  Nathan Braude (Viola), Sergey Ostrovsky (Violin), Evgenia Epshtein (Violin),
Rachel Mercer (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Aviv String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926; USA 
Quartet for Strings no 1 in A major, Op. 7 by Ernö von Dohnányi
Performer:  Nathan Braude (Viola), Sergey Ostrovsky (Violin), Evgenia Epshtein (Violin),
Rachel Mercer (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Aviv String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1899 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Great Chamber Music! August 5, 2012 By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews "Erno Dohnanyi is not a totally unknown composer in the United States, although it is hard to explain why his excellent body of works does not get wider attention. The two quartets on this excellent disk are mature, sophisticated pieces, slightly reminding one of Dohnanyi's fellow Hungarian Bartok, yet much easier on the ears. Very definitely recommended!" Report Abuse
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