Brahms: 21 Hungarian Dances WoO 1 (Transcribed for Cello and Piano by Alfredo Piatti)


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    21 Hungarian Dances for Cello and Piano
    In 1853, Johannes Brahms, who was twenty at the time, was moving his first steps in the musical world, when he met three musicians who would become some of his dearest friends: violinist Joseph Joachim, Robert Schumann and his wife Clara Wieck. When Clara was widowed, she decided to resume her activity as a concert pianist in order to disseminate knowledge about her husband’s works. She went also to London, where, starting from the mid-1860s, she became a constant guest. In 1867 John Chappel, one of the most skilled music entrepreneurs in the Victorian era, offered a good opportunity to Clara for refreshing her warm friendship with Joachim and for deeply knowing Alfredo Piatti, the most famous cellist of the day. He organized a concert tour for them with performances in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham, Rugby, Bath, Clifton and Torquay. In the following years, these three great performers kept cooperating at the Popular Concerts. In the UK, they promoted knowledge of the works not only by Schumann, but also by Brahms, as is witnessed in letters such as that written to Brahms on March 29th, 1873: “The day before yesterday, we played your B-Sextet for the second time this month for an audience of 1500 amidst tremendous applause. Piatti, the first cellist, was unsurpassed”. It is unsurprising, therefore, that those same Joachim and Piatti, in the early 1880s (probably encouraged by Clara and certainly with Brahms’ approval) had transcriptions after the Hungarian Dances ready for publication. At that moment, in the heart of Victorian London, they were considered as the best violinist and cellist respectively. Brahms, thanks to their performances of his works, was a “fashionable” composer. Publisher Simrock, always sensitive to musical “fashion”, caught the opportune moment for publishing the Hungarian Dances in Brahms’ original version for two pianos, and, a few years later, Joachim and Piatti’s transcriptions too. They are short, elegant, refined, and, at the same time, original, and suited for highlighting the exceptional level of the performers who proposed them to the audience. Piatti’s transcriptions, in particular, and especially as concerns the piano part, should certainly be considered as elaborations rather than as mere transcriptions. Indeed, they often put under the spotlight some musical elements other than those emphasised in the original version. They do not miss the opportunity to highlight the cello’s warm and agile voice, with that elegant virtuosity which always characterizes the works written by the composer who authored the famous 12 Capriccios op. 25 for solo cello.
    Annalisa Barzanò © 2023

    Hungary and its music had a very special role in Western Classical music. Up to World War I, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and therefore at the very heart of European culture, civilization and politics. Yet, due perhaps to its complex language and to the related, idiomatic culture, Hungary was always an outsider of kind with respect to the “properly Western” countries. Even though its political weight, as part of the Hapsburg Empire, was formidable, Hungary was felt as slightly exotic, as something “other” with respect to, for instance, countries such as France or Germany or Austria itself.
    This was certainly not demeaning; only, it added a particular scent or flavour to its culture and music. Under this viewpoint, its role can be compared with that of Spain, which was in turn a quintessentially European country, but was at the same time perceived as something “other”, as having an exotic (and therefore fascinating) patina. Of course, in both cases this exoticism was not entirely unjustified; both countries had experienced dominations by non-European cultures; this influenced their own culture and musical style.
    Many composers from the mainline “Western” countries underwent the fascination of these “exotic” kinds of music, and incorporated their tunes and musical gestures within their own works. In the case of Hungary, there often was (and there remained for centuries) a basic confusion between “Magyar” music and gipsy or Roma music. Since many gipsy musicians came from Hungary or the nearby zones, their music was mistaken for “Hungarian” music, even though it bespeaks a specific culture which cannot be simply identified with Hungary. Moreover, even those tunes and musical gestures which were actually “Hungarian”, normally came from the cultivated and bourgeois traditions of the rich and wealthy cities, rather than from the countryside. This, in turn, was not wrong in itself; the point was that those “urban” musical forms were believed to belong in the traditional folk heritage of the country. Only in the twentieth century, with the pioneering ethnomusicological research realized by Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók was the “authentic” musical heritage of the Hungarian countryside revealed to the whole world.
    Previously, a hybrid idiom was forged. It did have something “genuinely” Hungarian (or gipsy, once again), but it had been tamed, in a way of speaking, and had become a stereotype of Western Classical music. This, once again, is not to disparage the results, which, in the right hands, are among the freshest and most brilliant creations of some among the greatest Western composers.
    Haydn, who worked for years for the Esterházy family, was particularly skilled in arranging “Hungarian” tunes, which became a landmark in his own output and are perfectly integrated within his compositional style. Beethoven wrote a memorable Rondo all’ingharese, also known as The Rage over a Lost Penny: once more, a piece full of humour, grace, virtuosity and irony.
    Schubert, another Viennese composer, was frequently inspired by “Hungarian” or “Hungarian-like” sounds and moods; the second series of his so-called Impromptus (op. 142) closes with an enthralling example of such music.
    Then, of course, there was Liszt, the only truly Hungarian composer among those listed here; he was proudly Hungarian, and always eager to represent his country and its patriotic aspirations Europewide. He brought Hungarian music to immense popularity with his Hungarian Rhapsodies. Here, he employed forms, sounds (skillfully imitated on the piano), genres, tunes and rhythms of the Hungarian traditions.
    In the polarized musical culture of the nineteenth century, Liszt – and later his son-in-law Richard Wagner – belonged in one of two opposing fields; Johannes Brahms, with his former mentor and teacher Robert Schumann, in the other. Whilst this opposition had been largely determined by people other than the composers themselves, unavoidably it mirrored aesthetic principles marking a deep chasm between their conceptions of music.
    In spite of this, Brahms can be considered as a follower of Liszt as concerns the use of “Hungarian” (or gipsy…) tunes and themes in his music. Still, his inspiration did not come directly from Liszt, but rather from a violinist, by the name of Eduard (or Ede) Reményi (1828-1898). This great violin virtuoso had been a pupil of Joseph Böhm, who also taught Joseph Joachim. Both Joachim and Reményi came from Hungarian families of Jewish descent, and thus can be said to embrace both the Hungarian musical culture and the specific heritage of the Jewish and Yiddish communities.
    As a teenager, Brahms had been thunderstricken by a performance of Reményi; at 20, Brahms became his piano partner, and they toured jointly for some time in 1853. Through their acquaintance, Brahms learned to know and appreciate Hungarian and gipsy music, which would become a recurring trait in some of his “serious” compositions (both explicitly, as in the case of the Zigeunerlieder, and implicitly, as in the case of the Piano Quartet and of the great solo concertos).
    Reményi used to play “Hungarian” music in his recitals; Brahms probably accompanied him by ear, and thus he was not likely to know the exact provenance of the tunes performed by his friend. What he had mistaken for folk tunes where, in fact, in most cases the brainchildren of identified and identifiable composers, but this knowledge eluded him. Thus it came that he gave a splendid musical setting to some of these tunes in a version for four-hand piano duet. This ensemble was the ideal framework for his Hungarian Dances: it allowed for a gorgeous instrumentation with abundant virtuosity while remaining “just” difficult rather than transcendentally complex as happened with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.
    He issued four collections of Hungarian Dances: the first two in 1869, the second two more than ten years later. The composers who had actually created the tunes he employed were understandably outraged by what they considered as plagiarism; however, Brahms ignored the authorship of the tunes, and, it can be safely said, his arrangements vastly exceed the value of the originals. These Hungarian Dances proved enormously profitable for Brahms, on the planes of both finance and fame; while his output includes far more “serious” works, up to present day few of them can claim such immense and lasting popularity.
    It did not displease their composer, though, as is witnessed by the fact that one of the rare recordings we have of Brahms’ playing is precisely that of a shortened version of Dance no. 1 (recorded by Theo Wangemann who used to be an assistant to Edison). Interestingly, moreover, we also have an equally rare and valuable recording of a performance of the first two dances by Joseph Joachim. These early recordings, in spite of the technical limitations of the medium, are invaluable witnesses of how these Hungarian Dances sounded at the time of their composition and arrangement.
    Piatti’s version, recorded here, complements them, adding the beauty of the cello’s voice (a voice particularly suited to Brahms’ music) to the exquisite lines of Brahms’ “Hungarian” music.
    Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


    Luciano Tarantino is Italian cellist born in 1977, began studying cello at a young age and was taught by renowned masters such as Ormezowski, Geringas, Mork, Monighetti, and Rostropovich. By the age of 20, he had become the first cellist for several Italian orchestras, performing under conductors such as Mazeel, Sinopoli, Tate, Gergiev, Pretre, Noseda, Petrenko, and De Burgos. However, he soon left this role to focus on solo and chamber music, leading him to perform at prestigious chamber music festivals in cities such as Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Rome, Bergamo, Moscow, Vilnius, Stockholm, Istanbul, Beijing, Seoul, Strasbourg, Lugano, Johannesburg, Beirut, and more. Tarantino has recorded various CDs for labels such as DaVinci, Brilliant, Farelive, Fedoramusic, KzMusik, and Stradivarius, and was the only Italian to receive an award from the Violoncello Foundation of New York. Currently, he is the artistic director of Festival Note in Bari and plays the precious Italian cello of Carlo Antonio Testore from 1736.

    Paolo Scafarella is an accomplished pianist born in 1993 in Trani, Puglia. He graduated with top marks and honors from the 'N. Piccinni' Conservatory in Bari, where he obtained both a three-year degree in piano and a two-year degree in solo piano. Scafarella has performed as a soloist in major Italian cities and internationally in France, Spain, Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland. He has collaborated with orchestras such as Orchestra Sinfonica Santa Croce, Orchestra Sinfonica di Cosenza, and Orchestra Sinfonica di Grosseto. Scafarella has recorded successful albums with the record labels Brilliant Classics, Piano Classics, and Aulicus Classics. He is also a published author of books, transcriptions, and practice editions with the publishing house Momenti Edizioni. Scafarella recently won the S.I.P.C. 'Allan Forsberg' International Piano Competition in Stockholm, one of the most prestigious piano competitions in Northern Europe. Paolo Scafarella collaborates with Blue Chords Management, one of the leading music agencies in Italy, and has upcoming concert tours planned in China and America.


    Johannes Brahms: (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. The successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music, Brahms creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms and with the language of mid- and late 19th-century art music. His works of controlled passion, deemed reactionary and epigonal by some, progressive by others, became well accepted in his lifetime.