Ernst von Dohnanyi
String Quartet No.2 in D Flat Major, Op.15
Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960 Ernö Dohnányi in Hungarian) is generally regarded, after Liszt, as Hungary’s most versatile musician. He was active as a concert pianist, composer, conductor and teacher and must be considered one of the chief influences on Hungary’s musical life in the 20th century. Certainly, his chamber music is very fine, with most of it being in the masterwork category. Yet, sadly and inexplicably, it has virtually disappeared from the concert stage. Dohnanyi studied piano and composition in his native Pressburg (Bratislava) before entering the Budapest Academy. His first published work, his Piano Quintet No.1, was championed by no less an authority than Johannes Brahms. Upon graduating in the spring of 1897, Dohnanyi embarked on a dazzling career as a concert artist, often playing in chamber ensembles. Later, he also devoted considerable time to teaching and conducting.
String Quartet No.2 dates from 1906 and was premiered to great critical acclaim. It is in three movements. The first movement, Andante—Allegro, begins with a slow, broad rising introduction. It is the most important melodic theme of the entire quartet and serves as its motto-motif. The Andante is immediately interrupted by a brief Allegro burst of energy. An Adagio interrupts the Allegro momentarily before it is allowed to begin in earnest. Particularly striking is the fact that it takes place at a rapid tempo while simultaneously the main theme, the motto, is played at its original slow tempo. It sounds as if one is hearing two widely different tempi at once. It is an extraordinary effect and makes an incredible impression. The second movement, Presto acciacato, is a scherzo, opening with a relentless, driving rhythm in the cello. Superimposed periodically on top of this rhythm are warning chords which create a menacing mood of evil. The choral theme of the trio is a pure and innocent prayer. The final movement might well have been subtitled "Apotheosis." Although beginning Molto Adagio, it consists of several other important sections. More accurately it should be entitled Molto Adagio—Animato—Adagio—Andante—Allegro. It begins in a hushed mood similar to the trio section of the preceding scherzo. Suddenly, there is a powerful, angry outburst as the Animato dramatically explodes full of passion. (our sound-bite begins here). In the final part of the Animato, we hear for the first time the entire exposition of the opening Adagio powerfully stated by the viola against a ethereal accompaniment in the violins, playing high on their e strings. The dramatic high point is reached toward the end of the Andante when it comes time for the restatement of the opening motto. The two violins slowly climb ever higher, the second echoing the first each step of the way.
This is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, post-Brahmsian romantic quartet—a superb masterpiece. Nearly all who hear it agree. We urge professional groups to put this incredible quartet onto their programs. Experienced and competent amateurs will also derive tremendous pleasure from this outstanding work.