What Károly Goldmark and Ernó Dohnányi have in common is their national origin -- Hungary -- their harmonic language -- tonality -- their basic style -- Romanticism -- and, it must be said, their relative obscurity. What distinguishes them is primarily their dates. Goldmark (1830-1915) wrote in the fullest blooming of late Romantic nineteenth century Austro-Hungarian music alongside Brahms, Dvorák, and Bruckner. Dohnányi (1877-1960) began composing at the end of that era alongside Kodály and Bartók, and while atonality, serialism, neo-classicism, and a whole host of other languages, styles, and aesthetic systems came and went, he kept on composing in the same style he started with: rich, warm, and slightly spicy late Romanticism.
As this two-disc EMI set shows, this business of dates is the crucial difference between the two composers. While Goldmark is certainly no Brahms or Bruckner, he is likewise no Bruch or Volkmann. The three works here, the tone poem Der gefessette Prometheus, the Violin Concerto, and the Rustic Wedding Symphony, show Goldmark had his own, distinctive style. There are memorable tunes, effective orchestrations, and expertly controlled forms in every movement of every work, and if Goldmark is not one of his time's front-rank composers, he still deserves a hearing by anyone who enjoys the music of the period. The performances here are a mixed lot. For the tone poem and concerto, James Conlon elicits strong and sympathetic playing from the Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker and Sarah Chang turns in a powerfully characterized interpretation of the concerto's solo part. André Previn cannot quite bring off the same level of quality in the Rustic Wedding Symphony. While Previn's reading is charming and disarmingly direct, the Pittsburgh Symphony's playing is sometimes not altogether tight in more difficult passages and the blend is not always together in tuttis. Still, this is one of the most successful of recent recordings of this once popular piece and anyone unfamiliar with its delights should at least try it.
The same cannot be said to the two works by Dohnányi. His greatest hit, the Variations on a Nursery Song, receives a lightly insouciant reading from pianist Cristina Ortiz, but as the saying goes, she could sue her accompanists, Kazuhiro Koizumi and the New Philharmonia Orchestra for lack of support. Much better is the performance of the Konzertstück for cello and orchestra by János Starker and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Walter Süsskind where the soloist is one of the great virtuoso cellists of his generation and the conductor is committed to working with him. But in the end, even he fails to present as persuasive a case for Dohnányi as Conlon and even Previn do for Goldmark.