About this Recording
8.553140 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 2 (Matthies, Köhn)

Four Hand Piano Music Vol. 2

Brahms was a symphonist, a composer of concertos and sonatas, a writer of chamber music and songs and a poet whose Requiem was German not Latin. He was an arranger and editor, and he was a man of the dance, drawn as much to fragrant Viennese flirtations as swaggering Hungarian seductions, worshipping Schubert and the Strauss family no less than drinking in earthy gypsy vitality. “He would frequently come to our room and play to us,” remembered Schumann’s youngest daughter, Eugenie: “Schubert waltzes or his own Valses Op. 39, and wonderful, melancholy Hungarian melodies for which I have looked in vain among his published works; perhaps he never wrote them down”. As a boy he helped his family by playing the piano for sailors in the dockside saloons of Hamburg. His professional career truly began in August 1850 when he met the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi (1828-98), who had been a classmate of Joachim in Vienna. Reményi, the subject of the final pages of Liszt’s The Gypsy in Music, 1859, was among exiles fleeing the Austro-Russian suppression of the 1848 Hungarian uprising: at that time Hamburg was a traditional escape route to North America and was a place jostling with refugees, each with his own exotic identity. The two young men gave many concerts together, touring Germany in April and May 1853. That year, Brahms met Liszt (to whom he took a dislike) and Schumann, the first publicly to recognize his genius. From Reményi Brahms learnt not only csárdás and verbunko (recruiting dance-song) tunes, some of which he wrote down and sent to Joachim, but also how to play from the soul in the gypsy style - with improvisational flamboyance, knife-edge tension, yearning passion, and orientally decorative attack. He discovered the allure of strangely intricate rhythms, the secret of infinitely flexible rubati, and like Liszt he became exposed to material he mistook for authentic Magyar folk-music, when it was in fact more properly a gypsyfication of what Bartók (1921) was later to classify as “melodies by popular amateurs ...educated dilettanti” - a hunting-ground Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, too, had known well. Such a cocktail of popular dance and gypsy fancy (“the bitter-sweet sound of coffee-house music”) left a lasting influence on his work - from (among many examples) the popular Hungarian Dances and Zigeunerlieder, through the weightier Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op. 21 No.2 and the finales of the G minor Piano Quartet and Violin Concerto, to the rhetoric of the thirteenth of the Handel Variations.

What was it like, for a foreigner, to experience Hungarian urban-gypsy music? Following Brahms’s death, the English poet and essayist Arthur Symons visited Budapest, leaving a timeless description in his book Cities (1903):

The Hungarian gypsies are the most naturally musical people in the world. Music is their instinctive means of expression; they do not learn it, it comes to them of itself... The gypsies hold their violin in almost every position but the normal one... Their fingering is elementary; they use the bow sometimes as a hammer, sometimes as a whip; they pluck at the strings with all their fingers at once, as if they would tear the heart out of the tormented fiddle... The time varies, the rhythm fanatically disguised by a prolonged vibration, as it were, of notes humming around a central tone. In its keen intensity and profuse ornamentation... it is like nothing else in music... In Budapest there is a gypsy band in every café, and as you walk along the streets at night you will hear at every moment the scrape of fiddles from behind curtained and lighted windows... This music, I think, is after all scarcely music; but rather nerves, a suspense, a wheeling of wings around a fixed point... A native wildness speaks in it, it speaks in the eyes of these dark animals, with their look of wild beasts eyeing their keepers... It is tigerish, at once wild and stealthy. And it draws everything into its own net…

The Hungarian Dances, WoO 1, were issued by Simrock of Bonn in 1869 (Books I/II, Nos. 1-10) and 1880 (III/IV, Nos. 11-21), six of the first ten having previously been rejected by a Budapest publisher as commercially unviable. In their original guise, for piano solo (eventually finalized for publication in 1872), a few at least must have been ready by the Gottingen summer of 1858, when Brahms is known to have tried out some on Clara Schumann: within months both were programming them in their recitals. But it was only in November 1868 in Oldenburg, that they first performed together the elaborated duet form we know today. Besides the four-hand and solo (Naxos 8.550355) versions, the music rapidly came to enjoy popularity in arrangements for violin and piano by Joachim (Naxos 8.553026); and orchestra (Naxos 8.550110 - Nos. 1, 3 and 10 transcribed by Brahms himself, 1873; Nos. 17-21 by Dvorak, 1880; the rest by different hands); as well as in other mediums (including an alternative piano transcription from Moszkowski). Even the gypsies, in poetic exchange, made again their own what Brahms had copied from them. An historic Viennese cylinder recording of the G minor first dance, albeit virtually unrecognizable, introduced and played by the composer himself, dates from November 1889.

In publishing his Hungarian Dances, Brahms was widely accused of plagiarism, not least by Reményi. Yet from the outset he was careful to clarify his rôle as one of arranger rather than originator. Where he erred was in failing to credit the musicians from whom he had quoted. [1] Divine csárdás , after Sárközi. Bartók (Harvard 1943) noted its characteristic dotted long/short rhythms, also apparent elsewhere in the collection (e.g. Nos. 5, 8) as patently “anti-Hungarian”. [2] from Mor Windt’s Emma csárdás. [3] a wedding dance on tunes by Reményi and J. Rizner (Tolnai Lakadalmas); the vivace will be familiar from Liszt’s Eighth Hungarian Rhapsody. [4] a heel-clicking, whip-lashing dance, after N. Merty’s Souvenir de Kalocsay. [5] from Béla Kéler’s Souvenir de Bártfai, Op. 31, juxtaposed with a Slavonic tune. [6] Danse du Rosier, possibly after Nittinger. [7] another Reményi melody. [8] adapted from Szadaby-Frank’s Louisa csárdás after Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. [9] from J. Travnik’s Makoc csárdás. [10] a further Rizner wedding dance (Tolnai Lakadalmas). The themes of the more introspective 1880 collection are less well sourced. But the cross-rhythms, traditional folk cadences, tremulous cimbalom violin and chalumeau clarinet imitations, folk-modality (the Dorian tones of [11] for instance), essentially down-beat phraseology (Hungarian words are accented on the first syllable), and sharp contrasts of mood and tempo clearly belong to the same rhapsodic, larger-scale, variational background as the earlier cycle. Bridging a world between Liszt and Kodály [21], three - [11], [14] and [16] - are supposedly original compositions. [15] incorporates an Italianate tune famous from Liszt’s Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody (coincidentally another Donizetti Lucia reference - the allegretto giocoso melody on Edgar’s Act III aria, Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali).

The eighteen “Ländler tempo” Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52a (1868-69), were originally composed for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soli with piano duet accompaniment. In this form they were first heard in Karlsruhe on 6th October 1869, with a vocal quartet partnered by Clara Schumann and the conductor Hermann Levi at the piano. The duet version, without voices but prefaced by the texts, was published by Simrock in April 1874. As with the later Neue Libeslieder, Op. 65 (1874, Naxos 8.553139), Brahms selected his verses from Georg Friedrich’s Daumer’s Polydora - an anthology of love poems translated from various eastern and western Slavonic dance-songs. He completed the settings around the time Clara advised him of her third daughter’s intention to marry: “Johannes was as though metamorphosed from the moment I told him of Julie’s engagement”, she wrote to a friend, “wrapped up in the old moodiness. He got over it in about a fortnight; but his scarcely speaks to Julie whereas he had before constantly sought her with words and looks. Levi told me the other day that Johannes was devotedly attached to her". "Did he really love her?" she confided to her diary (16th July), “But he has never thought of marrying [her], and Julie has never had an inclination towards him”. Might these “spontaneously lyrical waltz-songs, a refined apotheosis of domestic music-making,” Malcolm MacDonald asks (1990), have been “an outward expression of [their composer’s] current daydreams about the beautiful Julie”? In the miniaturistic tradition of the Op. 39 duet Waltzes (Naxos 8.553139), the cycle, to a greater exlent than the second set, is less a Strauss dance-chain, more a Schubertian dance-sequence - of seductively persuasive turn and imaginatively atmospheric “scoring” (for instance the “trio” section of No. 6), with at times a Schumannesque keyboard lay-out even bolder, more self-contained, and pianistically characterful (notably Nos. 2, 11-13, 16, 18).

@Ateş Orga 1997

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