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A storied piano virtuoso and teacher whose students included Georg Solti and Geza Anda (his grandson is the much-acclaimed conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, who made his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut just a few weeks ago at Walt Disney Concert Hall), Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960) dominated Hungarian music between World War I and II, being at times the chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic, the director of the Academy of Music, and the music director of the Hungarian Radio. Brahms praised his early compositions, and much of his stylistic stance - eloquent late Romanticism cast in Classically-oriented forms - mirrors that of Brahms.
His Sextet, for the unusual combination of clarinet, horn, string trio, and piano, dates from 1935, a period when Dohnányi was cutting back on his performance career due to a several bouts of serious illness. It is a big piece, 30 minutes of music cast into four very Brahmsian movements. But it is Brahms with idiosyncratic twists - a menacing march rumbles through the Intermezzo, for example, and the Finale is marked "giocoso." Sly wit and boisterous fun are key parts of this music and much of Dohnányi's output: "To the enjoyment of lovers of humor, and to the annoyance of others," is how Dohnányi dedicated his Variations on a Nursery Song, his most popular orchestral piece.
The opening movement of the Sextet is a boldly dramatic essay, tense and turbulent. Its upward surges towards light always fall back into a darkness tinged with noir neuroticism until the very end, when noble aspiration triumphs. The Intermezzo begins with piano chords striding up through more inwardly turning string parts, but then that march comes in and a somewhat shaky tranquility is restored again only at the end. The third movement is a loose set of variations, including a vigorous Presto variation that is a true scherzo. The soaring horn proclaims peace, and this movement leads directly into the leaping Finale. Here the musical spirit is more like that of a Gershwin who stayed overlong in a Viennese hotel band, complete with a comical waltz interjection that dips into Mahlerian grotesquerie and a sassy kick to close.
- John Henken