ERNST DOHNANYI – String Quartet No. 3

Hungarian composer Ernst Dohnanyi [1877-1960] wrote three string quartets. He was also a conductor and fine pianist. Wikipedia cites two quotes: Dohnanyi as a “victim” of Nazism, and “was a forgotten hero of the Holocaust resistance”. He stayed in Europe during the war, but emigrated to the US in 1946, where he took up various musical posts.

I am going to discuss his Third String Quartet, which was written in 1926 and contains three movements.

The work opens in a charming manner, as the violins search for a melody. A violin plays in a very low register and the piece moves into a tempo, with alluring violin lines. Melodic development persists and there is a dash of Impressionism here. It sounds quite French. It suddenly becomes more rhythmic, and more serious. The violins excel in this passage. A very brief, random section, leads into a probing violin mood. The propulsion returns and the violins dominate as they exchange phrases, with not much input from the other players. It really is a virtuoso performance from the violins. Occasionally they release the tension for a time and drop back into an Impressionistic feeling. This is a most attractive passage. The intensity gradually increases as the ensemble have much rhythmic impetus. The virtuoso violins return for a time and quickly move to the conclusion, a sharp sweeping chordal effect.

An andante tempo introduces the middle movement, with a touch of elegance; it could almost be Haydn. Gentle and fetching melodies dominate. The cello is very supportive with strong statements. A pause brings with it a dancing tempo, with the violins quite joyous. The cello is still prominent as the violins negotiate enticing melodies. Another brief pause introduces a serious tone where the violins construct harmonised melodies over a rhythmic viola motif. There are tonal changes and the intensity rises and falls. Again, the violins dominate. Now a new passage evokes a pastoral mood; the melodies become less serious, but with a strong sense of purpose, in a beguiling section. This music shows great emotion, and a brief cello interlude lowers the intensity even further. The melodies now become sparse and wistful, and remain so to the end. This is marvellous piece of writing.

The final movement begins with a galloping tempo; the music becomes very busy. It still reminds me a little of Haydn. The galloping dissipates and the mood becomes more modern; and slightly burlesque for a time. Now we have a recapitulation of the opening theme; this is very energised. A playful section ensues as the tempo rises to be ridiculously fast, and the piece is concluded with several strong chords.

This is a Modern work, however it shows no sign of dissonance, but does look back into the past for some of the forms used. It specifically hints at Debussy, Ravel and Haydn for me, but doesn’t really sound like European music from 1926. It features great rhythmic possibilities and an endless supply of melodic ideas.

The CD review copy is on Naxos, titled String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3, performed by the Aviv Quartet. This version and several other combinations of two quartets are available on Amazon US and UK, but it is strangely absent from Presto.

There are also several versions on Spotify and all of the the three quartets are on YouTube.

Listenability: Very melodic early Modern work.

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