Although Brahms' four books of Hungarian Dances contain some of his best known music, their effect on CD can be less than persuasive. The composer himself was always careful not to assign himself authorship of the works, publishing them without an Opus number and referring to them as arrangements. Although he subjects the basic melodic materials at his disposal to some ingenious development and the dances are always entertaining, we have to remember that the first edition was published as piano duets and, as such, designed for domestic performance and so primarily to be played rather than listened to. However, Joseph Joachim's arrangements of the dances for violin and piano make some considerable technical demands, taking them back into the realm of public performance; Calum McDonald, in his excellent notes, goes as far as to describe them as 'a kind of gypsy "Art of the Violin"'.
The Israeli duo of Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez turn in very enjoyable performances and Shaham's technique is such that the difficulties of the violin part are never apparent; double stopped passages are despatched with ease, fast passage work is clean and exciting. McDonald makes the point that the violin was 'the gypsy instrument par excellence' but, at times, despite all his facility, or maybe because of it, I found Shaham's playing a little civilised. Making a recording of this sort of repertoire, the performer is faced with something of a dilemma as to whether to throw all caution to the wind in their interpretation or to exercise caution to produce something that will bear repeated listening. As a standard recording, Shaham and Erez are beyond reproach. There were a couple of occasions, though, when I wished they'd taken a few more risks: Erez's accompaniments sometimes sound a little disinterested and he could, in the famous fifth dance for example, have been a bit more alla zingarese. The second dance, too, didn't quite sparkle and fizz as much as it might have.
On the whole, though, the performances are wonderfully idiomatic, recapturing through Joachim's arrangements some of the authentic gypsy spirit that was, necessarily, pushed out in Brahms' piano duet originals. In the seventh dance, one of the more overtly virtuosic arrangements replete with its own mini cadenza, Shaham's use of portamento is seductive and the little dashes of colour that Joachim introduces – delicate trills added occasionally below and above the melody – are executed with nonchalant ease and style.
While the first volume – numbers one to ten – contain many of the more famous dances, in the second volume, Brahms allows more of his own character to come through, and Shaham and Erez are well suited to many of these more considered pieces. Shaham's tone is wonderfully plaintive in the melancholy No.11 and he captures well the skittish character of No.12, surely one of the most finely composed of all the dances. He and his partner are also very persuasive in the more experimental No.18 and pile on the virtuosity for the final No.21.
As a filler, we have Joachim's own Variations in E minor. Completed in 1881, they date from later in the Hungarian violinist's career, when he had all but given up composing to concentrate on his performing and administrative work. Despite the purely generic title, the work is shot through with gypsy colour – not surprising, as McDonald points out, since they were written only shortly after Joachim had finished his arrangements of the second set of Brahms' Hungarian Dances.
The rhapsodic introduction is full of flair and the simple theme suffused with a quiet, folksy melancholy. If anything, Shaham and Erez seem to enjoy themselves more in this longer work and as they go through the variations the greater complexity of the writing and interpretative demands push them to some wonderfully free and passionate playing – Erez, in particular, sounds as though he relishes his more involved role. There's a wonderful sense of the two performers challenging each other in their respective solo variations (9 & 10), becoming reconciled in the in the lyrical eleventh before Erez has another go on his own in the trill-infused twelfth, which sounds as though it's come straight from Brahms' own First Piano Concerto. In fact, several of the variations in the second half are extremely Brahmsian, containing numerous hints of the Haydn Variations. With Variation 18 and the finale, though, we're back in gypsy territory with some fiery writing matched by idiomatic and spirited playing. Like Christian Tetzlaff's recent release of violin concertos by Brahms and Joachim, though, this disc shows that while Joachim was certainly a skilled composer, his works seek to emulate Brahmsian grandeur without necessarily having the inspiration to match that aspiration.
In sum then, this is a finely performed and recorded disc and if I wouldn't necessarily recommend listening to all the Hungarian Dances in one sitting, these stylish and virtuosic readings give considerable pleasure.
By Hugo Shirley