The Nash Ensemble: Erno Dohnanyi (Hyperion)
They take their name from the 18th-century grand architect Graham Nash, who's beautiful buildings are near the Royal Academy of Music in London. Students from that academy formed the Nash Ensemble in 1964 so they could play more contemporary music. Ian Brown joined the group 40 years ago, and he's been the pianist ever since. He's made more than 60 recordings with the Nash Ensemble. The latest celebrates the early 20th-century Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi.
"His Hungarian name is Erno," Brown says. "I think he wanted to be associated with the German musical history. So he's still known as Ernst Von Dohnanyi. And the 'Von' in German means a sort of connection with nobility and so apparently his third wife his widow who wrote a biography describing how the family was ennobled in the 17th century."
He has a fascinating history, and it's one that I doubt is heard very often. In his early 20s, he was one of the virtuosos of the world when it came to the piano, and he caught the attention of Brahms early on.
"Brahms was a huge influence, especially at the beginning. Brahms and Liszt were great influences. Of course, he was very much thought of himself as the successor to Liszt because he was a fantastic pianist also a composer, also a conductor. But it's interesting that it is quite Brahmsian music in a way. But you would never mistake it for Brahms it's not just copying. He has a very individual voice. There's always little harmonic twists and chromatic twists in his music which are very characteristic of Dohnanyi."
Let's talk about the pieces that are on your new recording and I'd like to start with the final piece because that's the one on which you are featured, the Sextet for Piano, Clarinet, Horn and String Trio. It's a lush, wonderful work. It has a lot of different moods in it. We hear influences of Brahms and Strauss. Tell me about what we're hearing overall in this work and maybe if you also have a favorite moment or two.
"Yes, I agree with you. It's a marvelously sort of big, lush work. Although it's only six players, it's sort of verging on the orchestral in terms of the sound. And you know there's a grandeur about it. It could have been film music for Ben-Hur, or a work like that. It's very grand, and it packs a very strong punch.
"The movement I like most, I think, in this sextet, is the slow movement, and it begins very sort of seriously and lyrically. And then the piano sets up a rhythmic pulse like a sort of drum beat, and then there's this very grand theme over the top of that, and it builds up to a tremendous climax, and it's a very impressive movement."
The Serenade for String Trio in C major is a very early work. And here we get to hear the composer's sense of humor, which, I suppose, is heard in many of his works, but it seemed to really come through in this serenade. Don't you think?
"Yes, I do. Particularly the scherzo and the finale. But it's interesting as you say it's a very early work but it's still considered, I think, quite generally, to be one of his greatest works, although he was only in his mid 20's when he wrote it."
And then we have the String Quartet No. 3 in A minor. This is more of a nationalistic work.
"And it's very interesting too, of course, to compare him with his contemporary the other great Hungarian composer, Bartok. And Bartok, of course, and Kodaly, they were great nationalist composers, and they used a lot of material from folk songs and dances, and their music is very dominated by them. … In this quartet, suddenly the the lower strings set up very vigorous rhythms sort of like country peasant dances.
"He didn't break boundaries in a huge way like Bartok did. But there's a good example in this string quartet: the first movement in the development section, where suddenly he feels like breaking the boundaries, and the work enters this sort of 20th-century musical language, with very strong rhythms and edgy tonality."
To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
ResourcesThe Nash Ensemble (official site)
The Nash Ensemble: Erno Dohnanyi (Hyperion site)
The Nash Ensemble: Erno Dohnanyi (Amazon)