Brahms wrote the Violin Concerto 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’s writing following the completion of his long-awaited First 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’s 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, draws on Brahms’s love of Hungarian gypsy music. Clearly a 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. The movement 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’s 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 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 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 Dvoøák, 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 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 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 characterised by a strong dotted rhythmic figure, such as that found in the opening section of dances 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.
In Brahms’s later dances, the style hongrois is more closely assimilated with his own personal musical language. The dances are awash with features of the gypsy style incorporating the augmented second interval, florid ornamentation, and strong rhythmic patterns. Brahms largely avoided the Verbunkos, however, and the contrapuntal textures and harmonies characteristic of his own style are much more prominent. This may explain why the later set was received somewhat less enthusiastically by the public than the earlier set. His close friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, however, was totally captivated by the second set, writing: ‘Delicious as the earlier ones were, I hardly think you hit off the indescribable and unique character so miraculously as now.’ Arguably, by employing a freer approach to the style hongrois, and releasing his own creativity in the process, Brahms succeeded in finding a voice which was more convincingly Hungarian. The joy and sheer vigour of the final dances is augmented by Dvorák’s colourful orchestrations, which not only capture the essence of the style hongrois, but also add a hint of Bohemia to the mix.
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.
Dedicated to Donald and Louise MacDonald
Recorded at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK, from July 7th - 9th 2003
Engineered by Philip Hobbs and Calum Malcolm
Post-production by Finesplice
Produced using Linn 328A Monitors