Brahms Hungarian Dances Naxos 8.574424-25

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Hungarian Dances and the Hungarian Tradition
21 Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 (1868-80)
Traditional folk-music transcriptions, folk-style compositions and their arrangements by 19th century Hungarian composers
Adrienn Miksch (soprano), János Bándi (tenor), Ferenc Szecsődi (violin), Szilvia Elek and István Kassai (fortepiano and piano)
rec. 2019 at Music Chapel, Vámosszabadi, Hungary (traditional material) and 2021 at Hungaroton Rottenbiller Street Studio, Budapest (Brahms’s versions)
Naxos 8.574424-25 [2 CDs: 161]

Brahms always acknowledged that his Hungarian dances were mostly not original compositions of his own, but adapted from existing songs, folk tunes, dances and other earlier material. Szilvia Elek had the brilliant idea of tracking down these sources and presenting them alongside Brahms’s own version. For this project she has enlisted two singers, the soprano Adrienn Miksch and the tenor János Bándi, the violinist Ferenc Szecsődi, as well as her regular piano duet partner István Kassai, Hungarians all of them.

Each Brahms Hungarian Dance is preceded by its sources. If this is a song, a verse of it is sung by one of the two singers. For two of the dances, it is a piece for violin and piano. If it is a keyboard work, it is played on a fortepiano of Brahms’s time. The two pianists take turns in this, as they also do in playing primo or secondo in the Brahms versions. I am normally somewhat resistant to fortepianos – they tend to sound to me like neglected upright pianos which have been bashed too hard and too long in a schoolroom. I am pleased to say that the one here sounds quite acceptable, and halfway to a cimbalon, itself a Hungarian instrument which occasionally turns up in concert works. I should add that Brahms’s piano duet versions played here were his original ones; later arrangements, for solo piano, violin and piano and orchestra are mostly by other hands, sometimes with Brahms’s explicit approval. The Brahms versions are played on a modern piano, a Steinway model D.

The booklet lists all the sources, but translates only the first lines of the songs. Even so, the contents list runs to three pages in small type and double column. I doubt whether anyone other than Hungarians would know the original composers – and even they perhaps not that many of them – so I am not reproducing that list here. And some original composers were simply recording folk tunes or making new arrangements of works already in existence. It is hard to know how much should really be attributed to Anon and how much is the work of a known name.

It turns out that some of Brahms’s dances have a single known source, such as 2, 8, 10 and 12, but most are based on two or more. The booklet carefully explains all the ramifications of this. It also points out that some of this material was also drawn on by Liszt, who of course was himself Hungarian and used it in his Hungarian Rhapsodies and elsewhere. It is pleasant to think that Brahms and Liszt, normally thought of as polar opposites in nineteenth century music, having this in common.

The performances are full of fire and spirit. I don’t normally think that it helps for performers to be of the same nationality as composers, but it does seem as if native Hungarians often have a special feeling for their music. As far as I can judge, the performances here of the Hungarian material sound both idiomatic and attractive. So do those of Brahms’s dances. Brahms was himself German, but it turns out that he always had a close relationship with Hungarian music. For example, in his youth making a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eda Reményi, also frequently visiting the country and in his later years in Vienna regularly hearing Hungarian and gypsy bands. Apart from these dances, Brahms also wrote Hungarian-inspired movements in his serious works, such as the finales of the G minor piano quartet and the violin concerto.

I thoroughly enjoyed this recording, which is a brilliant idea well executed. The recordings, although made in two venues at two different times, match well. The booklet manages to give all the necessary background information, albeit in small type. This recording attracted official sponsorship, and it well deserved it. I note that the same team have also made a short companion, available only as a download or for streaming, with more of the same material (Naxos 9.70344). Whether or not that interests, Brahmsians should not hesitate about this.

Stephen Barber

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