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Apart from his most famous piece – his Variations on a Nursery Song of 1914 – Dohnányi is better known for who he was than for his music. His reputation as a fine pianist, and as a voice for conservative values, ignores his advocacy on behalf of younger Hungarian contemporaries including Kodály and Bartók, and his own considerable achievements as a composer. And they were considerable: this album is a first-class journey back to a gilded age of chamber music, when the harmonies
were as rich as a dessert by Escoffier and the language as highly coloured as a painting by Alma-Tadema.
I am not being flippant; these incipiently orchestral chamber works, as played here, emerge as beautifully written, shapely and consistently engaging. The first Piano Quintet is an astonishingly confident achievement for a 17 year old, and you can hear why Brahms admired it so, even if the Adagio has a kind of high-flown gorgeousness the mature Brahms rarely attempted.
The other two, later works show the same high level of craft but explore more ambiguous emotional terrain; both the Quartet and the second Piano Quintet come to quiet, pensive conclusions. They are also both in three rather than the conventional four movements, which would have been considered quite progressive at the time.
A few decades ago you would have been lucky to have heard these works played by a major ensemble; to hear them now, performed by the Takács and Hamelin, is a privilege. Their collaborations on Hyperion are unfailingly fine (their Schumann Quintet is a case in point), and this one suggests, once again, that the performances are the result of profound engagement. The playing does not speak of any special pleading, and as a result Dohnányi emerges as a more compelling composer than you might expect. Nothing is routine and every moment shines with expressive purpose. Highly recommended.