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Hyperion Records

CDA67663 - Brahms & Joachim: Hungarian Dances
The Old Violin (1888) by Jefferson David Chalfant (1856-1931)
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, USA, Copeland Fund Purchase / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: June 2007
Jerusalem Music Centre, Israel
Produced by Eric Wen
Engineered by Zvika Hershler
Release date: June 2008
Total duration: 65 minutes 4 seconds

'This is a magnificent release. Shaham and Erez have thoroughly absorbed a style that demands continual flexibility, playing together with such ease that it's easy to forget the art and care that have gone into achieving such beautiful ensemble' (Gramophone)

'Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez complement each other perfectly here, evincing fire, fury, and sweet sadness, and they act as a brilliant showcase for Joachim's work both as an arranger and a composer' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Virtuoso performances from the Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham that get to the heart of the style … the playing fizzes with energy and suavity' (The Daily Telegraph)

'This recording by Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez is probably the most dazzling that I have heard' (American Record Guide)

'These deservedly popular pieces overflow with charm and infectious melody … Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez sound right inside the idiom, playing with an infectiously relaxed bravado wherever necessary, while inflecting those timeless phrases with a suave confidence and relaxed inevitability that prevents them ever straying into camp 'geepsy' territory … there is a subtly understated charm about these performances which I enjoyed a great deal, gently cajoling us into its colourful sound-world rather than hustling us in. Most importantly, Shaham always gives the music a distinct Brahmsian lilt … many recordings provide just the Hungarian Dances, but Hyperion includes a typically inventive 'filler' in the form of Joachim's E minor Varations … Calum MacDonald provides an exemplary booklet note, and the recording is convincingly balanced, capturing Shaham's lithe, glistening tone to a tee' (International Record Review)

'On this recording, the Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham gives it all he's got, digging deep with a fabulous flair for this romantic style and relishing every juicy slide and glittering arabesque. Excellent accompaniment, too, from Erez' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Though the pieces themselves may be highly virtuosic (on second thought, forget the 'may be'), Shaham hardly allows these built-in difficulties to be obvious, so intent does he seem in communicating their impassioned rhetoric … Arnon Erez plays the piano parts of Brahms's pieces with a liveliness and sympathy … urgently recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'Eine grandiose CD, die ich jedem Violinmusik-Freund ans Herz legen möchte: Johannes Brahms' Ungarische Tänze, vom großen Violinisten Joseph Joachim aus der vierhändigen Klavierversion für Violine und Klavier arrangiert. Hagai Shaham und Arnon Erez servieren sie absolut „exciting“—mit Herz, Seele und natürlich umwerfender Bravour. Hagai Shaham (offenbar nicht mit Gil Shaham verwandt) entlockt seinem Instrument einen geradezu erotisch warmen Ton (was der Engländer „thrilling“ nennt). Das macht auch Joseph Joachims Variationen in e-Moll so schön aufregend prickelnd.—KAUFEN!' (Der neue Merker, Austria)

Brahms & Joachim: Hungarian Dances
G minor: Allegro  [2'10]
A minor: Presto  [2'56]
G major: Presto  [1'38]
D minor: Presto  [2'28]
E minor: Vivace  [1'31]
Theme  [0'26]
Variation 1  [0'26]
Variation 2  [0'27]
Variation 3  [0'26]
Variation 5  [0'24]
Variation 6  [0'26]
Variation 7  [0'25]
Variation 8  [0'24]
Variation 9  [0'24]
Variation 10  [0'25]
Variation 11  [0'26]
Variation 12  [0'25]
Variation 14  [0'27]
Variation 18  [1'37]

The forty-year friendship between Brahms and Joseph Joachim, violinist and composer, was one of the most significant and fruitful relationships in nineteenth-century music. Their admiration of each other’s artistry was profound and unwavering, and bore sustained creative fruit on Brahms’s side of which his Violin Concerto and Double Concerto are only the most famous examples.

Joachim’s transcriptions of Brahms’s famous Hungarian Dances—originally written for piano duet or solo piano—are technically challenging for any violinist, and superbly idiomatic, constituting a kind of gypsy ‘Art of the Violin’. They represent the summit of Brahms’s ‘Hungarian’ art, and Joachim’s powers of transcription match them with violin writing of the greatest fastidiousness and authentic feeling. The brilliant Hagai Shaham, acclaimed for his recordings of Hubay, is the ideal performer.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The forty-year friendship between Johannes Brahms, composer and pianist, and Joseph Joachim, violinist and composer, was one of the most significant relationships in nineteenth-century music. It had its problems—each man’s touchiness and insecurity aggravated the other’s, and Brahms soon took care never to live in close proximity to Joachim, whose capacity for morbid negativity and jealousy came to appal him. There was a long period in which they were not on speaking terms, after Brahms chivalrously took the side of Joachim’s wife Amalie when he tried to divorce her on grounds of imagined adultery with Brahms’s publisher Simrock. But their admiration for each other’s artistry was profound and unwavering, and bore sustained creative fruit on Brahms’s side in many compositions of which his Violin Concerto (written for and dedicated to Joachim) and Double Concerto (written for Joachim and the cellist of the Joachim Quartet, Haussmann) are only the most famous examples.

Joachim, for his part, already had a European reputation when Brahms appeared at his lodgings in Hanover in the spring of 1853, not yet twenty, a mere talented youth from Hamburg; but he was among the first to recognize and hail the young man’s astonishing gifts. Before long he came to see Brahms’s compositional mastery as not being worth competing with: having been the more prominent composer in the 1850s Joachim wrote less and less, concentrating on his other talents as one of the greatest violinists of his age, and as a conductor, teacher and administrator. (He founded and ran the Hochschule für Musik at the Royal Academy of Art in Berlin.) Brahms had been the foremost admirer of Joachim’s own works, and always regretted that his mentor had virtually ceased to compose, but Joachim remained the musician to whom Brahms most readily turned for criticism and advice.

Born at Kittsee near the polyglot city of Poszónyi (Pressburg)—now in Slovakia (where it is called Bratislava) but then part of the Kingdom of Hungary—where Austrian, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian cultures intermingled, Joachim was steeped from his childhood in the ‘Hungarian’ gypsy idioms which symbolized the romantic and exotic to the young Brahms. Joachim had early been drawn to the Hungarian nationalist school of Franz Liszt, and though when he first met Brahms he was on the rebound from the cloying atmosphere of Liszt’s circle in Weimar, he remained proud of his Hungarian origins and determined to integrate the ‘Hungarian style’ in a more organic and symphonic form. His primary achievement in this direction, and probably his most important original work, was his Violin Concerto No 2 in D minor ‘in the Hungarian manner’, which he was composing at exactly the same time as the young Brahms was struggling with the composition of his own, vastly ambitious, Piano Concerto No 1. (Brahms once said his ideal concert programme would consist of the two concertos, his and Joachim’s, played back to back.) Thus it was practically pre-ordained that Joachim would eventually arrange Brahms’s famous Hungarian Dances, originally published for piano duet or solo piano, for violin.

Brahms probably first heard Hungarian gypsy tunes, and started to collect them, from his violinist friend Eduard Reményi, in whose repertoire they featured prominently. When Reményi planned a tour of Germany in 1853, Brahms went with him as accompanist—his first trip away from Hamburg—and it was Reményi’s decision to make their way to Hanover, where Joachim was musical director of the court orchestra. Soon Brahms was making his own arrangements of Hungarian material: a version of the Rakoczky March dates from 1853, as (probably) does his Variations on a Hungarian Song for piano. In her memoirs, Schumann’s daughter Eugenie remembered Brahms playing melancholy Hungarian melodies to the Schumann children, for which in later life she looked in vain among his published works. Of course many other composers in and out of Hungary had been making use of the ‘Zigeuner’ style, from Haydn and Dittersdorf to Liszt, Volkmann and Joachim; but Brahms took to the idiom so thoroughly he was soon able to inhabit it with particular boldness, affection and intensity, producing such astonishing music as the ‘Rondo alla Zingarese’ of his G minor Piano Quartet and the achingly plangent slow movement of the Clarinet Quintet.

We know that early in 1867, while he was still writing his German Requiem, Brahms offered six dances for solo piano to the Budapest publisher Dunkl, only to have them turned down. His first set of Hungarian Dances, now grown to ten and arranged for piano duet (the most popular medium for home music-making), seems first to have been heard in Oldenburg in 1868, performed by Brahms and Clara Schumann, and did not appear in print until the following year, from Simrock, who had now become his principal publisher. Like the Liebeslieder Waltzes for vocal quartet and piano duet, composed around the same time, the first set of Hungarian Dances, which was printed in two books of five dances each, was an enormous popular and commercial success which made Simrock a small fortune. (Brahms had sold them to him for a simple down payment with no royalties.)

Brahms did not consider the Hungarian Dances as original compositions but as arrangements—which is why he gave them no opus number—and though a few of the melodies may in fact be his own, the bulk of them derive from popular gypsy tunes of the csárdás type, many of which could be found in Hungarian editions attributed to individual composers. Brahms did not acknowledge his sources, however, and was therefore accused of plagiarism, though it is likely he noted down most of the tunes by ear, some from café entertainers, while others must go back to the repertoire he heard from Reményi. (Two of the tunes are apparently Reményi’s own, and he was one of the first to call Brahms a plagiarist.) But the forms and intensifications which Brahms has imposed on his favoured material are unquestionably his; the Dances are real compositions, even if he did not compose their basic material. They are generally quite large-scale, multi-section forms, whose capricious and often fiery alternations of material, mood and tempo re-create the traditionally passionate performance style of gypsy violinists. Brahms takes full advantage of the rhythmic freedom, the opportunities for cross-rhythm and rubato, the popular melodic style and exotically inflected cadences that the idiom offered. It is abundantly clear he enjoyed writing against his own habits of logical and conscientious development.

Simrock wanted to encourage the widest possible circulation of the Hungarian Dances, and commissioned a large number of arrangements. They soon appeared in a variety of different instrumental combinations including solo flute and piano, two violins and piano, three players at one piano and military band. In 1872 Brahms issued all ten dances in a version for solo piano, presumably worked up from the original form he had offered to Dunkl, and the following year arranged Nos 1, 3, and 10 for orchestra. Meanwhile Joachim’s version of the dances—which Brahms welcomed enthusiastically—had already appeared in 1871, and through his performances of them Joachim did much to spread their fame across Europe.

Brahms eventually produced a second set of eleven Hungarian Dances, which was published—again in two books, this time of six and five dances—in 1880. Joachim immediately set to work to produce another complete set of transcriptions, published in the same year. His friendship with Brahms seemed to have attained a new pitch of mutual trust around this time, consolidated by the the composition of Brahms’s Violin Concerto and G major Violin Sonata; Joachim had been intimately involved with the creation and the premieres of both. However, this second group of Hungarian Dance transcriptions was to be Joachim’s last artistic collaboration with Brahms before the debacle over his divorce attempt soured relations between them for most of the 1880s.

Joachim’s transcriptions of the Hungarian Dances are technically challenging for any violinist, constituting a kind of gypsy ‘Art of the Violin’. As a native Hungarian, Joachim was the ideal arranger and, as his own Violin Concerto No 2 had shown, he had an unrivalled understanding of the gypsy idiom. The violin was, in any case, regarded as the gypsy instrument par excellence, and it could reasonably be said that it captures the spirit of the dances more effectively than the piano duet medium; so in one sense Joachim was ‘restoring’ the dances to their original instrument, if not their original form. His violin parts, though extremely difficult, full of double stops and frequently demanding octaves for emphasis, are superbly idiomatic. He freely ornamented the melodic lines and transposed four of the dances into new and more brilliant keys in order to utilize the instrument’s natural sonority most effectively. He sometimes inserts additional passagework (for instance the short cadenza, employing left-hand tremolos, in No 7).

Of the various numbers of Volume 1, No 1 is based on a csárdás by Béla Sarkozi, with its sonorous, soulful rhythm. No 2 takes as its model Emma csárdás, a piece by Mor Windt: it alternates a kind of soulful flamboyance with impulsive dashes and has a rumbustious but very short middle section marked Vivo. No 3 is a whimsical wedding dance spun out of tunes by Reményi and József Rizner. No 4 uses a tune (by N Merty) also to be found in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 8, while No 5 (originally in F sharp minor) takes a melody by Béla Keler and juxtaposes it with a Slavonic rather than Hungarian melody. Joachim transposed it to G minor, apparently to enhance the soulfulness of its elegiac colouring. No 6 (originally in D flat), after a tune ascribed to Adolf Nittinger, is one of the most remarkable of the Hungarian Dances, with the recurring hesitations and pauses in its first theme, its frequent changes of tempo and improvisatory succession of striking ideas. No 7, known to be on a melody by Reményi, is more playful with its strutting dotted rhythms and capricious cascades of thirds, perhaps suggesting an accordion as much as a violin. No 8 is adapted from Louisa-csárdás by Szadaby-Frank, a piece itself based on themes from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. No 9 uses a csárdás by János Travnik, while No 10, with its capricious succession of contrasting ideas, is another wedding dance from the collection Tolnai Lakadalmas by Rizner.

The second volume of Hungarian Dances is generally considered a subtler, more introspective collection, less dependent on pre-existing sources. According to Joachim himself, Nos 11, 14 and 16 were entirely Brahms’s original compositions on themes ‘in Hungarian style’, but his sources for the others remain matters of debate. No 15, at least, uses a tune that occurs in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 12, but in which some commentators have seen a further reference to Donizetti’s Lucia. Harmonically and texturally richer, and perhaps more varied and subtle in character, this second set of dances represents the summit of Brahms’s ‘Hungarian’ art, and Joachim’s powers of transcription match this with violin writing of the greatest fastidiousness and authentic ‘gypsy’ feeling.

Another set of ‘folk dances’ for violin and piano—the Spanish Dances of Pablo de Sarasate—seems to have provided the impulse for the composition, or at least the completion, of Joachim’s own Variations in E minor heard on this disc, for Sarasate had dedicated his Dances to Joachim, and Joachim responded by dedicating his Variations to Sarasate. As already mentioned, most of Joachim’s original works were composed in the 1850s and early 1860s, and only a few pieces followed in the remaining forty years of his life. His output includes, notably, several impressive orchestral overtures inspired by literary subjects, three violin concertos and a number of shorter works for violin and orchestra: all of the latter also exist in alternative versions for violin and piano, as does the Variations. Officially this is one of his few ‘late’ works, for he premiered it in Berlin on 15 February 1881—not long after his arrangement of the second volume of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and just two months after his rift with Brahms over his attempts to divorce Amalie. It is possible, however, that some of it dates from a good deal earlier.

Incidentally this is not Joachim’s first set of variations for a solo string instrument: in the late 1850s he had composed his Variations on an Original Theme for viola and piano, Op 10. These two variation-sets make an interesting comparison, not least because they share the key of E and because the theme of the 1881 violin variations is hardly an independent invention but at best a close variant of the theme of the viola set. But while the viola set simply comprises its theme followed by ten variations, the violin set is considerably more sophisticated structurally, consisting of an introduction, theme, eighteen variations and finale. Despite this it is much more concise than the viola variations, which are decorative and rhapsodic and unashamedly flaunt their ‘Hungarian’ colouring. The individual variations in the violin set generally keep to the same dimensions as their theme and follow each other briskly, building up structural paragraphs across several variations rather than making each variation a separate episode in the form.

The dreamy, rhapsodizing introduction, in which the violin speaks with the unmistakable accents of the gypsy fiddler, is one of the few overtly ‘Hungarian’ passages in the work. The lyrical theme itself is announced by the piano, espressivo, and is then restated by the violin to form the first variation. The next four variations decorate the theme in progressively smaller note-values, giving the impression of a controlled acceleration that arrives at a ‘hunting’ variation with the violin in virtuosic counterpoint against horn-imitations in the piano. After a lively continuation in variation 7, variation 8 features the violin, unaccompanied, with impressive chords which are taken up by the piano in variation 9.

A new and pensive melody, sung by the violin over the theme’s original harmonies, forms variation 10 and leads to two expressive major-key variations (11 and 12) which, with 10, form a kind of central ‘slow movement’ in the sequence. The momentum picks up over the next four variations (13–16), culminating in another ‘hunting’ variation (17) shared between violin and piano. Variation 18 forms the introduction to the finale, a lively movement founded on a new violin theme that goes in combination with the original theme in the piano. This is a kind of rondo (and here Joachim again indulges in explicit colouring all’Ongarese) that races to a brilliant conclusion in E major.

Calum MacDonald © 2008

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