BRAHMS: 21 Hungarian Dances – Kantorski-Pope Duo, piano – Whaling City Sound wcs 045, 51: 13 [www.whalingcitysound.com] ***:
When we consider that it was in 1868 that the set of Brahms Hungarian Dances made their debut with Brahms and Clara Schumann at the keyboard, this version with Valrie Kantorski and Ann Almond Pope at the Hamburg Steinway seems like a natural extension of that premier. For the first ten of the Dances, Brahms utilized gypsy strains and formulas he adapted–to accompany the violinist Remenyi–from melodies by Sarkozy, Windt, and Rozner, along with cembalom (aka tremolo) effects taken from Hungarian and Magyar folk styles. The setting for piano four hands allows Brahms any number of layered effects, counterpoint, syncopations, and octave unisons that reverberate with pungent dynamics.
The No. 4 in F Minor, for instance, exults in “weeping” sighs and cross rhythms. The famous No. 5 in F-sharp Minor enjoys a fiery spark the Hungarians call zal, a whimsical rubato that alternately tugs at or condenses the metric pulse. The repeated one-note throb in the bass line easily captures the string bass accompaniment to a gypsy band that ordinarily would consist of violins, double bass, and cimbalom, and possibly low horn and triangle. No. 6 displays the rhythmic license and jarring, restless quality we like in both Brahms and Liszt. Sarcastic staccati open the No. 7 in A Major, which stops and starts with flighty dexterity. The manic No. 8 in A Minor convulsively switches mood every few bars, ecstatic and melancholy, then breaks out into runs worthy of Liszt. No. 10 in E Major Brahms orchestrated himself, understanding the tricky metrics and three-voice effects would make for a polyphonic experience.
One of the two longest Hungarian Dances, No. 11 in D Minor opens the second set, a funereal and processional piece with a drone trio section. The music sidles rather suavely and plaintively, more Brahms than gypsy. No. 13, Andantino grazioso in D Major, prepares us for some of the Brahms magic in the Handel Variations. The B-flat Major No. 15 opens like a Chopin Nocturne from Op. 48, then it freely splices the Liszt Rhapsody No. 14 to the wild mix. No. 17 in F-sharp Minor, Andantino, the piano duo takes very slowly until the middle section, where the czardas breaks out with impassioned and jocose energy. The B Minor No. 19 exerts a tripping guile that can explode at any whimsical moment. The E Minor No. 20 anticipates the Fourth Symphony in the same key. The melancholy sense of resignation proves a consistent Brahms affect, despite the latter pages’ attempt to hurtle into a pose of freedom. No. 21, also in E Minor, does manage to storm the walls of convention and taste the blue sky above. While it seems to me that four-hand setting of the Haydn Variations could have well fit onto this disc, we must settle for what we have, faithfully and vivaciously rendered.