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All twenty-one of Brahms most popular works are on offer here, in excellent sound, in the arrangements for violin and piano made by Brahms’ friend, performer and promoter, Joseph Joachim. Nos. 1 and 2 were recorded by Joachim himself in 1903 with an unknown pianist, both at a semitone lower than the original keys. Joachim is sparing with vibrato, using only a fast, narrow pulse intermittently on longer notes, thereby emphasising the plaintive, even schmaltzy, quality of the music but that is surely permissible in the Hungarian Dances of all compositions. Joachim was in his early seventies when he recorded them and perhaps some allowances have to be made as he was already lamenting the loss of some facility, but he manages the double-stopping and the fast sixteenth-note passages in the middle section of No. 2 creditably. More importantly, he leaves us a glimpse of how someone close to the composer played, in true “Gypsy style”, variously sad, wild, exuberant and passionate.
Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker certainly plays with great feeling and freedom here, unashamedly milking the opportunities for soulful rubato and rallentando just as the music demands; her accompanist is scrupulous in following her lead, so ensemble is tight. Like Joachim, she keeps the vibrato lean but is more relaxed than Joachim in No.2, taking considerably longer over the swooning phrases. I love the way they launch into the graded accelerando of No. 4, beginning at 47 seconds in; you would have to be starchy soul indeed not to respond the swagger of this music and a palpable sense of the musicians’ enjoyment emerges.
Nos. 1 and 5, the most popular and most frequently recorded, are ideally rendered but that could be said of all the tracks here; they clearly suit the temperament of the young violinist, whose technique, intonation and artistic sensibility are all impeccable. This is not to denigrate her pianist but she is the star and the piano is inevitably more reticent, virtually never being given the melodic lead.
The booklet contains an interesting essay regarding the origin of the tunes Brahms employed, discussing which were authentic Hungarian folk tunes or dances and which were newly composed by other musicians or Brahms himself. There are also biographies of the two artists, a transcription of a conversation between them about their interpretation of the music and two nice photos of a young Brahms with Joachim and Eduard Reményi, the violinist with whom Brahms toured in 1852-53.
These are short pieces of wholly agreeable music, mostly only two or three minutes long each. They are thus easily digestible and hugely enjoyable; my only reservation is that perhaps listening to all twenty-one at one sitting is to invite overload, so I prefer to listen in two halves.