Sunday, November 27, 2016

Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances

This series of twenty-one short pieces were published in sets in 1869 and 1880 for four-hand piano, but taking on a soaring richness in orchestral settings like that in this recording for the Lydian imprint of the Naxos label by the Philharmonia Cassovia, based on Kosice, Slovakia.

The liner notes to the album state that Brahms, born in Hamburg, Germany and professionally situated in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was highly impressed by Hungarian music after hearing expatriate musicians in Hamburg who fled Hungary after the 1848 revolutions and then through his years in Austria and in touring Hungary in the early 1850s.  His interest was encapsulated in what became among his most popular works with these dances.  Brahms worked on some of the orchestrations from the duet piano originals in the mid-1880s, while others, including Antonin Dvorak, handled the remainder of the series.

Three of the later pieces (numbers 11,14, and 16) were original Brahms ideas, but the rest drew from Hungarian sources.  Many are familiar even to amateurs like this blogger, such as dance #5, but the sprightly, lively works were actually written specifically for people to play at home, so it is easily understandable that these were popular works based on music gypsies adapted for people to hear on the streets of European cities.

Of course, Brahms' penchant for creating soaring melodies with compelling harmonic relationships within the orchestral setting make the adapted sources the building block for his highly personal and powerful work to shine.

The Philharmonia Cassovia performs, to these untrained ears, with great sensitivity on the quieter pieces, like dance #11, with assured grace on the stately dances #14 and #17, and with vigor and power on any number of the faster works, including the first several pieces or, say, #15.  Andrew Mogrelia, a native of England who specializes in ballet scores, has worked most recently in Australia and was in San Francisco prior to that and his work on this recording shows an excellent command of the full resources of the ensemble.

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