|Review by Geohominid March 21, 2007 (9 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|From the time of Mozart onwards, the piano duet became an increasingly popular form of music-making in the home. The reason for this is not hard to find - seated close together upon a duet stool, a lady and a gentleman (of many ages) could share relatively intimate contact without breaking the bounds of contemporary decency. Apart from that, playing duets is far more fun than solos, as there may be deliberately written out sections where the Primo part at the treble end of the keyboard crosses into the lower Secondo territory (or vice versa), so arms must interlink. This may well be disastrous, and leads to hilarious laughter from both performers!
The 20 year old Brahms toured with Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, and often improvised piano parts to his playing of 'Hungarian Dances'. Later, in the 1860's, Brahms published the first two volumes of his recollections as Hungarian Dances for piano duet, and they were so succesful that his publisher Simrock asked for and got two more volumes. Later in the century it became clear that these 21 dance tunes were not truly Hungarian folk music at all, but urban gypsy music for taverns and the like, composed by unheard of authors, whose scores Brahms had never seen. As Stijn Kolacny, one of the brothers playing the music on this disc, tells us in his sleeve note, Brahms was later accused of plagiarism, but his defence was that he had entitled the pieces as "arranged by Johannes Brahms" and not composed by him - pointing out that he never gave them Opus numbers. He did, however, remark that some of the pieces in the last two volumes were indeed composed by him.
It is thought that dances 11, 14 and 16 may be the through-composed Brahms originals, and indeed, relatively short though they are, one hears a notably greater depth in them.11 has a striking tolling opening with a nobly sad falling melody (more than half of the set are in minor keys); it is harmonically more complex and "deeper" in content than previous numbers, reminding one of a late Brahms intermezzo. No. 14 also digs dark and deep - a dramatic tone-poem in the manner of the Eduard Ballade in the solo piano pieces. No 16, also in the minor, begins with a passionately sad melody in the treble, which is swept away by an ebulliant and robust peasant dance with intricate crushed-note ornaments.
These works are not for faint-hearted duettists or technically-challenged ones, as many frustrated amateurs will attest. They require pianism of a considerable order, both in finger-skills and interpretative insights, as they are full of syncopated rhythms, accelerandi, sudden, violent changes of mood, pace and dynamic and a wide range of textural colours which imitate other instruments. Indeed, a large handful of them have been orchestrated by Brahms himself, as well as by other composer-conductors. You may think you know the Hungarian Dances from their orchestral guises, but, believe me, you really need to listen to them in their original 4-hand form, performed as well as they are here.
The Kolacny Brothers, of Belgian origin, began playing piano duets as children, with parallel interests in rock music and choral music. Their playing shows a wonderful rapport, fully put to the test by these volatile pieces. My listening notes are full of references to their springy rhythms, astonishing co-ordination of prestissimo runs and the seductive singing tone which they can bring to the Dances in their quieter moments. They agree on rubato, and are very respectful of the need to change the dynamic of individual parts to bring out a melody or countermelody in another zone of the keyboard. In loud climaxes they have rich texture and impressive force without banging. And they can be very cheeky too - listen to the delightful start of No. 2 with its grace notes.
There are few details about the recording in the sleeve, other than it was made in a studio, and the DSD logo hides coyly on the disc label itself. I find it perfectly captures in MC the extra richness of piano tone given by 4 very active hands compared with a solo pianist, and with the great dynamic range the players can command. The top end of the Steinway glitters and corruscates under the Primo's hands, while the richness of the Secundo part never sounds clogged and bloated, especially with a good subwoofer. There is air around the sound, but no discernable hall acoustic, as expected from a studio recording. The recording sounds like the engineers found the sweet spot with very few microphones and just left them there. Exemplary. In Stereo, there is marginally less richness and resonance in the sound, but still a very stable image. The red book is very good, but on immediate switching from MC it sounds a little more toppy and thinner, again as expected, but still very listenable.
I have never been able to listen to just one dance on this disc, I always have to play the whole thing through, because the record shows just how much fun old Brahms and these young performers have with these apocryphal dances. Thanks to a mention in the Forum about meritorious discs which have gone unsung by reviewers, I realised I had this disc in a batch bought last year and never listened to. What an absolute pleasure to dig it out and discover it to be one of my favourites - in fact I had to put some of the tracks onto my iPod!
Please buy this one and tell your friends about it. Not a boring Dance or a boring note in sight.
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