Thursday, August 14, 2003

[8/14/2001] Sunday Classics: In which we hear three sets of variations on the same VERY familiar theme (continued)


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Did Adolphe Adam really think this theme was "von Mozart"? Note that this is a "neu bearbeitet" ("newly worked") edition, which makes me wonder whether Adam originally made reference to "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman."

Mozart, as we've seen, knew our tune as "the French song Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman?," and it's on this famous ditty that Adolphe Adam (1803-1856, composer of ballets including Giselle, operas including Si j'étais roi," and probably most famously the Cantique de Noël, known to us as "O Holy Night") wrote his set of variations for voice, flute, and piano. I've always thought of the recording that Beverly Sills made as part of the 1972 "Beverly Sills Concert" LP with members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (which is sort of like a CMS concert but is in fact a studio recording) as being pretty famous, but if it's been on CD, I don't find any trace of it.

ADOLPHE ADAM: Bravura Variations on a Theme of Mozart
[The theme isn't by Mozart, of course!]
Air (early 18th century): Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman?
[Note: The folklike verse is in six-line stanzas -- only the first of which is used by Adam -- with seven-syllable lines, rhyming AABBCC.]

Ah! shall I tell you, Mama,
What's causing my torment?
Since I saw Silvandre
looking at me with a tender air,
my heart says at every moment,
can one live without a lover?
Beverly Sills, soprano; artists of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Paula Robison, flute; Charles Wadsworth, piano. ABC Audio Treasury/Westminster Gold/EMI, recorded March 1972


Ernö (Ernst von) Dohnányi (1877-1960)

Last night we heard the distinctly tongue-in-cheek "dramatic" Introduction of Dohnányi's Variations on a Nursery Song, the first statement of the theme, and the first variation, and separately we heard Variations 4 and 7 -- our "Mystery variations" A and B. Why don't we start by recapping those?

ERNÖ (ERNST VON) DOHNÁNYI: Variations on a Nursery Song for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25

Before we hear that wonderfully dramatic Introduction again, a few words might be in order concerning the tone of the Nursery Song Variations. The description that pops into my mind is "tongue-in-cheek." At one extreme I've seen this work described as "campy," which seems to me absolutely wrong. At the other extreme I've seen it suggested that the Introduction is "far from mock-seriousness," and while I'm not exactly sure what this means (does that "far from" mean that in the writer's opinion the Introduction is not "mock-serious"?), I think it's wrong too. I don't question the seriousness of the section, but are you really going to tell me that those wackyish dissonances aren't, well, tongue-in-cheek?

Let's listen again to the Introduction (with the first statement of the theme and the innocent-sounding Variation 1), the lumberingly strutting march of Variation 4, and the swooping waltz of Variation 7.

Introduction; Theme; Variation 1
Variation 4
Variation 7
András Schiff, piano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded October 1985


We'll stick with the performance by András Schiff and Sir Georg Solti. I mentioned last night that both our soloist and our conductor have a particular connection to the composer, and the one I had in mind was the obvious one: They're all Hungarian. I think it really does matter. There are lots of ways of playing this music, and in a while we're going to hear some noticeably different ones, but I think Schiff and Solti, for all that they were of wildly different generations not just from the composer but from each other (Schiff was a month or two shy of his 32nd birthday when this recording was celebrating his 73rd), had a common cultural reference for the music's aura.

First, let's hear how Dohnányi gets from Variation 1 to Variation 4.

Variations 2 and 3

Variation 2 brings us vaguely foreboding horn fanfares set against a sort of fantasia in the piano solo, while Variation 3 is awash in a sweetly sighing string variant on the them set against a sort of elegant cocktail-piano-like tinkle from the keyboard.

Variations 5 and 6

Between Variations 4 and 7 -- again, last night's "mystery" variations -- we have two beguiling sleepers: the tense, mysterious, gossamer Variation 5 (Malcolm Rayment describes it in his liner note for the 1956 Dohnányi-Boult recording as having "a most delicate bell-like texture as if imitating an elaborate music box," noting too that "mingled with the tone of the piano are the delicate sounds of the harp and vibraphone"),
and the oddly mutedly high-spirited Variation 6, where the piano partners only with the orchestral winds.

Variations 8 and 9

We have another, very different march for Variation 8, at once jaunty and disturbing. Its striding timpani underpinning carries over, at least initially, into the free-form Variation 9, which hints at the world of Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice and a spectral witches' sabbath.

Variation 10

The longest of the set, Variation 10, is cast in that solemn old-time form, the passacaglia, which Malcolm Rayment notes "builds up to a large climax full of emotional tension, which subsides and melts into the last variation."

Variation 11 and Finale

With a grand full-orchestra resurrection of something like the original theme, we're launched on a high-romantic meditation (we're in the world of Tchaikovsky's ballets and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, no?). Then with upward flourishes traded between the soloist and several orchestral soloists we're launched on the romping finale.


After the slice-and-dice job we did on the Schiff-Solti recording, it seems only right to start by hearing it from start to finish.

DOHNÁNYI: Variations on a Nursery Song
for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25

Track 1: Introduction
Track 2: Theme
Tracks 3-13: Variations 1-11
Track 14: Finale

András Schiff, piano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded October 1985

Now we're going to hear the composer's 1956 stereo remake of his February 1931 version (with EMI producer Lawrance Collingwood conducting the London Symphony), and the American virtuoso Julius Katchen's recording -- both conducted by a man who managed to sound at home with virtually every nationality and style of music he performed, and produced conspicuously different frameworks with his two soloists. (I should mention that, as you'll no doubt hear, these are both dubs from LPs.)

DOHNÁNYI: Variations on a Nursery Song
for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25

Ernö (Ernst von) Dohnányi, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, cond. EMI, recorded September 1956
Julius Katchen, piano; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 12, 1959

Finally we have a recording in which one of the performers has a literal connection: Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi,* 37 at the time but well on his way to becoming one of the foremost conductors of his time, is the composer's grandson. I certainly don't want to slight the soloist, though. Earl Wild (1915-2010) commanded a unique combination of virtuoso flash, tonal elegance, and down-to-earth directness of utterance.
*Christoph von D has quite a family pedigree. His year-older brother Klaus von Dohnányi has been an influential and esteemed figure in Germany's Social Democratic Party, serving two terms as mayor of Hamburg (1981-88) and later playing an important role in the integration of the former East Germany into the reunified German state. The boys' father, Hans von Dohnányi (the composer's son), was a noted contrarian jurist during the Third Reich and was executed by the Nazis on either April 8 or 9, 1945. For sure on April 9 their uncle Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the noted theologian and philosopher (a brother of their mother, Catherine), was also hanged.
DOHNÁNYI: Variations on a Nursery Song
for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25

Earl Wild, piano; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Reader's Digest/Chesky, recorded March 1967


It actually appears to be easier to come by at the moment than the 1956 Dohnányi-Boult. Most intriguingly, it's included in the 22-CD EMI anthology Composers in Person, featuring a staggering array of composers performing their own music. (There are track listings here -- you just have to guess the composers' names!)

The composers: Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten, Ernö (Ernst von) Dohnányi, Marcel Dupré, Edward Elgar, Manuel de Falla, Alexander Glazunov, Enrique Granados, Paul Hindemith, Gustav Holst, Arthur Honegger, Aram Khachaturian, Franz Lehar, Nikolai Medtner, Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud, Federico Mompou, Joaquín Nin, Hans Pfitzner, Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, Albert Roussel, Florent Schmitt, Dmitri Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Louis Vierne, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Charles-Marie Widor

I missed this series entirely, but I'm reading that the CDs were originally issued singly, with elaborate notes that have been jettisoned for the boxed version. However, as I write, Amazon vendors are listing copies of the 22-CD set for as low as $48.67 (plus shipping). I probably won't be able to restrain myself from ordering it.

(I might add that noted 78 transfer specialist Mark Obert-Thorn, who has done his own transfer of the 1931 Variations and the batch of recordings Dohnányi made with orchestra in London in 1928, says of the Variations that "the composer was again unlucky in that the matrices were over-recorded and distort during loud passages.")


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