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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Violin Concerto & Hungarian Dances

Joseph Swensen (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor)
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Recording details: July 2003
Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Calum Malcolm
Release date: May 2004
Total duration: 71 minutes 35 seconds

Another triumphant success for director Joseph Swensen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.


'Lively and zest-filled performances' (The Daily Telegraph)» More

'Swensen is a player of real distinction' (International Record Review)» More

'The selection of Brahms's Hungarian Dances are as colourful, fast-paced and brilliant as one could wish for, and under Swensen's powerful command the orchestra gives a fantastically spirited performance: a riotous finale to a thoroughly appealing disc' (The Strad)» More

'It's just about perfect' (Classics Today)» More

In the 1850s Johannes Brahms encountered two Hungarian violinists, Eduard Reményi and Joseph Joachim, both of whom were to have a profound impact on the direction of his musical career. Reményi was one of the many Hungarian exiles who had ended up in Hamburg while en route to America in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution. A gifted violinist who had studied at the conservatory in Vienna, he was particularly renowned for his virtuosic performances of the wild and exciting music that was played by Hungary’s Romani gypsies in coffee shops and bars across central Europe. This music was widely believed to be the indigenous folk music of Hungary. However, it was actually an amalgam of various Hungarian styles, interpreted by the gypsies to create a distinct genre that sounded decidedly exotic to Western ears. The style enjoyed enormous popularity in the nineteenth century, and was seized upon by composers such as Weber, Schubert, Liszt and Brahms, whose spirited evocations of the music can be seen in their numerous style hongrois compositions.

Reményi and Brahms often played together in Hamburg, Brahms improvising piano accompaniments to Reményi’s Hungarian dances and, in 1853, the two embarked on a concert tour of North Germany. They made an odd couple, Reményi’s theatrical nature providing a stark contrast to the shy and earnest young German and, unsurprisingly, they went their separate ways midway through the tour. Before they parted company however, Reményi introduced Brahms to his fellow compatriot, Joseph Joachim. Like Reményi, Joachim was an enthusiastic champion of Hungarian gypsy music. However, he approached composing and performing with a gravitas that was much more suited to Brahms’ outlook. The more experienced Joachim took Brahms under his wing immediately, introducing him to the Schumann circle and offering him endless compositional advice. The pair studied counterpoint together, played Bach together and quickly laid the foundations for what was to become a lifelong friendship and musical partnership.

Brahms wrote the Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77 in the summer of 1878 while holidaying in the idyllic setting of Pörtschach in the Styrian Alps, the place where, a year earlier, he had written his Second Symphony. Immediate parallels can be drawn between the two works: both are in D major, have a first movement in triple time with a triadic first subject and are pervaded by the new-found self confidence and inner calm that manifested itself in Brahms’ writing following the completion of his long-awaited First Symphony.

The Concerto was written specifically with Joachim in mind and, as soon as the violin part was finished in August 1878, Brahms sent it to his friend, writing: ‘Now I’ll be satisfied if you say a word, and maybe write in a few: difficult, uncomfortable, impossible, etc.’ Joachim happily stepped in as advisor, and over the next few months made numerous suggestions regarding violin figurations, bowing and orchestral textures. The pair corresponded repeatedly over the work until its premiere in Leipzig on New Year’s Day 1879, and Brahms continued to tinker with it until its eventual publication in October 1879. Characteristically, although eager for advice, Brahms was not always willing to take Joachim’s proposals on board, and often did not make the alterations suggested by the latter. Nevertheless, the resulting product represents a masterful display of violin writing inspired by the integrity of Joachim’s style. The violinistic qualities of the Concerto were not, however, universally recognised when it first appeared. Josef Hellmesberger, after conducting the premiere of the work, famously remarked that it was a Concerto ‘not for, but against the violin’, an attitude that was undoubtedly a reaction to the unprecedented symphonic scope of the work. Reflecting Brahms’ and Joachim’s respect for their Germanic musical heritage, the Concerto builds on the legacy of the violin concertos of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, reconciling the nineteenth-century demand for virtuosity with the intellectual rigour required of the symphony.

The first movement is conceived in an utterly symphonic manner, involving a grand scale orchestral exposition and an elaborate working out of the thematic material in the solo part. Yet the movement is pervaded by a sense of warmth that belies its compositional intricacies, and moments such as the waltz-like elaboration of the second subject, when it is first taken by the solo violin, exude a cheerful contentment reminiscent of the Second Symphony. Brahms declined to write a cadenza for the movement, leaving this task to Joachim instead. Alternative cadenzas have since been composed by the likes of Busoni and Tovey. However, Joachim’s cadenza, which can be heard on this recording, appropriately remains the most popular.

Each of the three movements of the Concerto reveals a different dimension of Brahms’ multi-faceted compositional persona and, if the first movement epitomises Brahms the symphonist, it is Brahms the song composer who emerges in the lyrical second movement. Written to replace the two middle movements he had originally sketched out for the Concerto, this ‘feeble Adagio’, as Brahms described it to Joachim, contains some of the composer’s most intimate writing. The movement is built on a gentle melody, the beauty of which lies in its simplicity. The melody is stated first by solo oboe, accompanied by a rich blend of woodwind, and is then treated to a stream of seamless variations by the solo violin.

The final movement of the Concerto, an exuberant ‘Rondo alla Zingarese’ (rondo in the Hungarian style), draws on Brahms’ love of Hungarian gypsy music. Clearly an homage to Joachim who had written a finale in the style hongrois for his own Hungarian Concerto of 1861, Brahms managed to immerse himself far deeper in the style than his Hungarian friend. The bravura virtuosity of the solo violin part is very much in the gypsy spirit and the movement exudes an enormous energy, impelled by restless dotted rhythmic figures and syncopations. It contains an extended coda in which the rondo theme is transformed into a high spirited Hungarian style march, providing a fitting climax to the Concerto.

Although Brahms’ earliest arrangements of the Hungarian Dances date back to the 1850s, no doubt resulting from his partnership with Reményi, it was not until 1869 that the first ten dances were published by Simrock in an arrangement for piano duet. The piano duet was the ideal medium for domestic consumption and, unsurprisingly, given the popularity of the style hongrois, the dances met with immediate success. Eager to build on their popularity, Simrock persuaded Brahms to arrange a number of them for orchestra, and subsequently his orchestrations of Nos 1, 3 and 10 were published in 1874. A further set of dances was issued in 1881, again in an arrangement for piano duet, but Brahms did not orchestrate any more of the dances. This task was undertaken instead by some of his most dedicated supporters, most notably by Antonín Dvořák, who orchestrated Nos 17-21, and claimed that the dances exerted a direct influence on his own Slavonic Dances.

Brahms described himself as the arranger rather than composer of the dances and tellingly published both sets without an opus number. Yet there has been considerable debate about the origins of the various melodies and Reményi went so far as to level accusations of plagiarism at Brahms. Brahms undoubtedly learned some from the latter and probably picked up others in coffee shops in Hamburg and Vienna. He did, however, also compose a number of the tunes himself; according to Joachim, he wrote Nos 11, 14 and 16. The Dances contain a kaleidoscope of Hungarian colours, ranging from the plaintive parallel thirds and sixths that open the sixth dance to the florid ornamentations in the seventh. The Verbunkos features prominently in dances Nos 1-10. A recruiting dance played by gypsies for the Hungarian army, the Verbunkos and its more formalised derivative, the Csárdás, alternate slow sections called lassan with faster friska sections. The lassan sections tend to be majestic and dignified, and often characterized by a strong dotted rhythmic figure, such as that found in the opening section of dances Nos 1, 5 and 8.

The contrasting friska sections contain lively virtuosic music, rife with cross rhythms and syncopations. Ubiquitous in these sections is the characteristic alla zoppa (‘limping’) rhythm, a short-long-short rhythmic figure that Brahms uses extensively in the faster sections of his dances.

The issue of authenticity is one that raises its head repeatedly with regard to the style hongrois. Was Brahms aware that the style was not indigenous to Hungary? Probably not. However, even if he had known, it is unlikely that he would have been too concerned. When doubt was shed on the authenticity of his favourite collection of folk songs, he wrote to Philip Spitta: ‘Not a folk tune? Fine, so then we have one more cherished composer,’ an attitude he would almost certainly have taken with his beloved Hungarian Dances.

Elaine Kelly © 2004

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