‘...lively and zest filled performances.' The Telegraph
'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.' The Strad
‘Swensen is a player of real distinction, and this new performance lets us hear Brahms's orchestral writing with a rare clarity too.
Highly enjoyable.' IRR
‘It's just about perfect.' 10/10 ClassicsToday.com
The beguiling lyrical melodies of the Violin Concerto belie its formidable technical demands; Swensen proves the master of Brahms' frequent use of multiple stopping, broken chords, rapid scale passages and shifting rhythms. Playing a 1715 Stradivarius Swensen showcases honeyed tone colours with effortless bravura executing Joachim's dazzling Cadenza with aplomb.
Swensen's authoritative command produces well-characterised and energetic performances in the selection of Hungarian Dances orchestrated by Dvorak, Schmeling and Brahms himself, among others. Guided by Swensen the SCO give dynamic, technically assured and intimate readings overflowing with the subtle touches and flourishes.
Violin Concerto & Hungarian Dances
In the 1850s Johannes Brahms encountered two Hungarian violinists, Eduard
Remenyi and Joseph Joachim, both of whom were to have a profound impact on
the direction of his musical career. Remenyi 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.
Remenyi and Brahms often played together in Hamburg, Brahms improvising
piano accompaniments to Remenyi's Hungarian dances and, in 1853, the two
embarked on a concert tour of North Germany. They made an odd couple,
Remenyi'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, Remenyi introduced Brahms to his fellow compatriot, Joseph Joachim. Like Remenyi, 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 Portschach 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 Remenyi, 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 Antonin Dvorak, 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 Remenyi 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 Csardas, 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
Recorded at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK, July 7-9 2003
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Calum Malcolm
Post-production by Julia Thomas
Produced using Linn 328A Monitors
Dedicated to Donald and Louise MacDonald