Dohnanyi Piano Quintet No. 1

Ernst von Dohnányi, Piano Quintet No. 1, first movement

Recorded Aug. 20, 2016 at Summer Music concert
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
Duration: 9’13”


Heini Kärkkäinen – piano
Min-Young Kim – violin
Minna Pensola – violin
Vladimir Mendelssohn – viola
Carl Donakowski – cello


Hungarian composer Ernő Dohnányi, known by his own choosing as Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960), grew up in a musical household.  Dohnányi’s composition teacher was a close friend of Brahms, and he fostered the boy’s musical tendencies and helped bring him and the newly written Piano Quintet, Op. 1, to the elder master’s attention.  Brahms, not a little flattered by this obvious homage, praised the Quintet and helped promote its first significant performance in Vienna—an event that Brahms unfortunately did not live to see.  The influence of Brahms on Dohnányi’s youthful work is clearly paramount, particularly in the symphonic chamber writing that bursts forth on occasion.  One also feels the presence of Franz Liszt, whose innovations in thematic unity across multiple movements impacted the structure of this quintet.  The example of these masters helped inspire the 17-year-old Dohnányi to moments of impassioned, grand rhetoric supported by wonderful piano writing.

The opening movement is marked by broad sweeping gestures and robust cascades in the piano; Dohnányi’s own brilliant technique on the keyboard manifests itself at every turn.  Contrasted with this animation are the graceful chordal second theme and the inspired shift to C major at the coda.  In the second movement Dohnányi shows an assured command of rhythmic control and harmonic pacing, in particular when he combines the movement’s two themes in the coda.  A lyrical vein runs through the Adagio movement, characterized by an expressive downward leap, frequent appoggiaturas (accented melodic dissonances) and close counterpoint in the strings.  The finale offers a study in rhythm, from the irregular grouping of five- and six-beat measures at the beginning to the propulsive cross rhythms (a trademark of Brahms) that drive the main theme.  Dohnányi, perhaps not unexpectedly given the influences mentioned above, caps the whole work off with a cyclic return to the first movement’s opening theme, presented now in a radiant C major.

© Jason Stell, 2016