BRAHMS: 16 Waltzes, Op. 39; 21 Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 – Helene Mercier and Cyprien Katsaris, piano four hands – Warner Classics 0190295636661, (8/24/18) 70:36 ****:
Recorded 16-18, 20 May 2016, the Brahms collection of the 1869 21 Hungarian Dances and the 1866 Op. 39 Waltzes find kindred, gypsy spirits in Helene Mercier and Cyprien Katsaris, who freely interchange the pieces with an ecstatic sense of stylistic transition. Brahms came to the Hungarian arrangements of folk and gypsy songs by way of his association with the violinist Remenyi, and Brahms set them both for solo piano and for piano four hands, while his close friend Joachim would set them for violin and piano. Only No. 11 in D Minor, No. 14 in D minor, and No. 16 in F minor belong to Brahms proper; the others have various sources, including a czardas or two by composers like Keler, Sarkoezy, and Borzo. In the course of the proceedings, played with fervent abandon and no mean application of tempo rubato, we hear various influences on jazz and ragtime, including much that passes for “The Montagues and the Capulets” in Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. As for sonority, never accuse Mercier and Kasaris of having “gone soft” on percussive dynamics or modal effects to catch the flavor of the cembalom in gypsy music. The shifts in tempo for the ever-popular No. 5 in f-sharp minor more than insinuate that Katsaris has watched Chaplin shave a customer to this tune in the scene from The Great Dictator.
The Op. 39 set of waltzes bring out another aspect of the Brahms temperament: his loyalty to Vienna and the spirits of both Schubert and Johann Strauss, Jr. When considering who might serve as his duo partner Katsaris felt Mercier best suited his desire to pay homage to Clara Schumann and to maintain the improvisatory elan of the dances. The Op. 39 project a suave elegance that the Hungarian arrangements lack, in that their rustic, earthy character does not seek grace but rather a dark, elemental melancholy and occasional violence. The syncopations, passing discords, and flurries of grace notes abound, with scintillating runs and massive block chords, when required. The “symphonic” possibilities in the power of the four hands forever hover in the wings. If ever an album set Brahms on the same musical pedestal with Franz Liszt, this is it. For the pungent thrill of the North German take on “gypsy” style, this collaboration sets a high watermark.