Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Brahms - Hungarian Dances (arr.Joachim)

Earlier, I posted some music by The Bollywood Brass Band, a wonderful fruit of cross-pollination between the British and Indian cultures. Here's an excellent article that traces the ebb and flow of the brass band tradition between two countries: the British brought it with them in the early XIXth century, the locals absorbed it into the greater Indian musical fabric by playing Indian traditional tunes and Bollywood songs using the brass band medium; South Asian immigrants brought the wedding brass band tradition with them to UK and now the young Britons got together as "The Bollywood Brass Band" to play the music that went through these multiple iterations. The cultural give and take behind it is at least as interesting as the music itself.

Now, here's another example of a cultural ping-pong between two musical traditions, separated not geographically, but rather socially: the living folk tradition of gypsy music and the classical world. Brahms had a strictly classical education, but first became interested in gypsy music when he toured Europe (and particularly Hungary) as an accompanist to the virtuoso violinist Ede Reményi. Through him and street musicians Brahms became exposed to gypsy and Hungarian folk music, which were thought of as synonymous at the time. He compiled and arranged a book of compositions that were published as "Hungarian Dances" to much acclaim and financial reward for Brahms. They gave the audiences of the time a measured taste of exotica, the carefree life of noble nomads, yet filtered through and tempered with a classical sensibility enough to be acceptable in polite society.
One of Brahms's friends and colleagues was Joseph Joachim, a celebrated hungarian-jewish violinist who was both classically trained and thoroughly familiar with the oral tradition. Joachim made a violin/piano arrangement of these pieces, bringing them closer to the actual folk music of the time with authentic ornamentation and melisma - and then carefully notated them out, sending the ball back into the classical court, as it were.
The performers on this recording, Shaham and Erez, have both impeccable classical credentials and also experience playing hungarian/gypsy folk music, and so they occupy perhaps the ideal vantage point from which to approach Brahms.

What I've written above does not imply an assessment of this music as more or less "authentic" or "true" to the folk music it was supposed to represent. It would be an error to judge it by the orthodox musicological standards: the Hungarian Dances were with us for long enough to stand on their own merits and they probably have influenced a few performers of the "true" "traditional" gypsy music.

Johannes Brahms - Hungarian Dances (arr.Joachim) {Hagai Shaham - violin, Arnon Erez - piano}
VBR, 95mb on depositfiles
Hungarian Dances #1-21
Variations in Emin #1-21