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Hyperion Records

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The Old Violin (1888) by Jefferson David Chalfant (1856-1931)
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, USA, Copeland Fund Purchase / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67663
Recording details: June 2007
Jerusalem Music Centre, Israel
Produced by Eric Wen
Engineered by Zvika Hershler
Release date: June 2008
Total duration: 51 minutes 34 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)

Hungarian Dances, WoO1
Volume 1 (first performed in 1868 in Oldenburg by Brahms and Clara Schumann, published in 1869 by Simrock) Book 1: Nos 1-5; Book 2: Nos 6-10; Volume 2 (published in 1880) Book 3: Nos 11-16; Book 4: Nos 17-21
Volume 1: 1871; Volume 2: 1880

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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 produced a second set of eleven Hungarian Dances, which was published in two books. 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.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2008

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