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Ernö von Dohnányi: Violin Concerto No 1 in D minor, Opus 27 – Violin Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 43
Michael Ludwig (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta (conductor)
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland (20th-21st of August, 2007) – 71’24
Naxos 8.570833 2008

Living in Budapest some years ago, I thought it was virtually a rule that radio stations and concert halls were required to play Bartók, Liszt, Kodály or sometimes even Ligeti and Kurtag. Specifically missing was the music of Ernö von Dohnányi:, who was perhaps the most Hungarian of them all.

Liszt never learned to speak Magyar, Bartók emigrated to America, Kurtag and Ligeti went to Europe, and Kodály, while certainly Hungarian in music, kept a very low profile during the war because of his Jewish wife.

Dohnányi, though, stayed in Budapest for much of the Second World War, only emigrating to America in 1949, after sojourns in Europe and South America.. He had disagreed with the savage Fascist pogroms, but coming from a noble family, he held equal contempt for the Left, so felt no reason to leave.

So why this paucity of Dohnányi music? Listen to the two incredibly beautiful concertos on this record, and you won’t recognize even an iota of music from Hungary, the oddest and most nationalistic country in Europe. None of the faux-gypsy tunes of Liszt, the disjointed melodies of the two modern composers and the then newly minted folk influences of Bartók or Kodály.

Yes, Dohnányi composed some charming rural Hungarian works, but they were in the same vein as his “American” works, treating these countries as if exotic, their music to be preserved in aspic.

But one must question why these two concertos are not staples in the concert halls, for they are certainly unique. And if Michael Ludwig is any example, they sound both challenging and inspiring to any first-rate fiddler.

The Second violin concerto, which has been recorded several times, hardly fits into any category. At first, you think of Brahms, but the melodies are a bit too sweet. Then Max Bruch, but hardly as saccharine. The concerto is “well-made”, like so many late 19th Century virtuoso works, but this was mid-20th-century.

What we do find, under Mr. Ludwig, is a piece of late romanticism, which begins with a cadenza, and continues with two or three more dazzling solos, along with the most lush soaring themes. The following movement, less than four movements long, is a bumptious romp. (The double-stopping centre is close to a Brahms Hungarian dance, but hardly Hungarian.) The last two movements bear all the tricks of the well-trained composer, including several delightful cadenzas

That work, written in Florida, is supposedly more “mature”. But give me the first concerto, written in 1915! The atmosphere is more mysterious, the tunes a bit stranger, the orchestral atmosphere a bit swampy, almost cinematic.

Of course “movie music” wasn’t composed until 18 years later, so the atmosphere starts with true originality. By the time of the finale, one feels again that this is merely a well-constructed work, working in various fugues and canons. Dohnányi , though, does have a wonderful way with solo orchestra instruments, and his little obbligati for winds give it as much color as the violin itself. To me, the most stunning part of the whole disk is a cadenza at the end of this concerto accompanied first by solo French and then an orchestral fugato as Mr. Ludwig plays above it.

Michael Ludwig is no ordinary soloist. Now First Chair with the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, he has managed to fit in concertos with the Chicago and Philadelphia orchestra, with recitals around the world and several recordings. I have never heard him live, but he is obviously not afraid to take chances with his repertory. Nor does he stint on his playing, which is broad, bravura when necessary, and with a grand sweep. His virtuosity is evident in both works here.

The Royal Scottish Orchestra well deserves its sobriquet, with soaring horn calls, a classic trumpet solo in the second concerto, some liquid winds, and, under JoAnn Falletta, a conductor who gives as much verve to her orchestra as her soloist gives to the music.

The recording by Naxos is well focused, and the program notes by Keith Anderson—Naxos’ very first annotator—are, as always, informative and detailed. Not that the music needs such detail,. It is as accessible as Bruch, as rich at times as Brahms, and has enough fireworks to inspire both soloist and audience.

Harry Rolnick




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