Among the four sets of piano duets that Johannes Brahms wrote are the Ungarische Tänze – Hungarian Dances. The 21 pieces that make up the 2 volumes of Dances are varied in style with the first 10 being the most well known. Brahms orchestrated Nos. 1, 3 and 10. Several others were orchestrated by Antonin Dvořák. The violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend, arranged the Dances for violin and piano. Versions for a range of other instrumental combinations exist.
The first performance of the Hungarian Dances was in 1868 at a house concert in the home of Albert Dietrich in Oldenburg, Germany. Brahms and his beloved friend Clara Schumann played the Dances from his manuscript. One of Brahms's biographers, Florence May, a student and friend, quotes the host: “Frau Schumann and Brahms played them [Hungarian Dances] with an inspiration and fire that transported everyone present.” Just imagine the vision of Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, two pinnacles of German classicism, seated together, elbow to elbow, performing this most impassioned music. Improvisatory. Exotic. Fiery. Reckless. By turns, explosively energetic and melancholic. The experience could have been not only an artistic one, but a personal catharsis for the two renowned Germans.
In this recording, The Kantorski-Pope Duo effectively recreates the ephemeral spirit of a unique moment in the history of romantic music.
The Kantorski-Pope Piano Duo is a three-time recipient of First Prize in the Graves Duo Piano Competition. The Duo was awarded the Virginia E. Schrader Residency in the performing arts from the Toledo Museum of Art in conjunction with the national touring exhibition entitled Impressionism. The ensemble has performed on Public Radio and Television, and has appeared as guest artists in the New Music and Arts Festival sponsored by the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music.
Valrie Kantorski has performed as solo, chamber, and orchestral pianist with the Florida Philharmonic, Fort Lauderdale Symphony Orchestra, the South Florida Chamber Ensemble, and the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Kantorski has recorded on Coronet, Capstone, Access, and Riverview labels.
Ann Almond Pope has studied piano with Edward Kilenyi and repertoire with Ernst von Dohnányi. A member of ASCAP, her arrangements of duo-piano music have been published by Belwin/Warner Bros.
The new Kantorski-Pope recording of Brahms's 21 Hungarian Dances is the liveliest, most engaging, and most stylish one I know. It is as if these two native Americans were really born on the Hungarian Puszta and miraculously appeared in an American recording studio. Their performance captures the zest, the sadness, and the accents of the music with nuances I never heard before, inner voices and connections between the bass part and the upper part which I never thought about. In all 21 tracks there is not a dull moment. Their ensemble is impeccable, their tempos just right. I've tried hard to find something to fault -- however gently -- and I can't. I want one for all my friends!
--Styra Avins, Author of “Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters
The twenty-one Hungarian Dances composed by Johannes Brahms are in many ways a study of the changing nature of the composer and audience in the late nineteenth century. Brahms composed the work for two players at a single piano: an ensemble that speaks to a kind of communal – even familial – music making that was common in the nineteenth century. While every respectable European city had an opera company with an opera orchestra, dedicated symphonic orchestras were still quite rare. As a result, musicians learned symphonic works in piano transcriptions, and as the symphonies grew more complex, the use of two pianists for a transcription increased. Thus, Brahms' original conception of the Hungarian Dances suggests a shared sense of musical inquiry between two performers. The later arrangements for orchestra and for a single pianist, speak to the changing nature of the "market" for new music in the nineteenth century; entrepreneurs could sell tickets for an orchestral concert and publishers could sell multiple editions of a work by Brahms.
The performing and recording history of this great work has been enriched by the other arrangements. The orchestral version remains a staple of the repertoire, while the solo version remains the sort of work pianists keep at hand for encores and specialty performances. Even a cursory glance at a library or store catalog indicates how these other versions have dominated available recordings. The four-hand version has become a sort of curiosity that is available in older recordings – with their attendant re-mastering problems and unfashionable performance practices – or new digital offerings, hastily recorded by two young prodigies in an Eastern-European church.
This recording of the Hungarian Dances by the Kantorski-Pope Duo is a most welcome addition to the available recordings. Here are two musicians who have obviously lived with this literature and have given serious consideration to the problems – and the promise – of balancing the considerable amount sound one can expect of two pianists. Perhaps one of the first challenges of performing this literature is to properly lift and sing these Hungarian melodies within rich and varied texture of voices that are all played on a single piano. The sheer proliferation of piano notes combined with the heft of Brahms' contrapuntal praxis can make the overall sound busy or clouded. The Kantorski-Pope Duo meets this challenge with aplomb. The pedaling is restrained and is used more for timbre than for sustain: a kind of pedaling that suggests the Graf and Streicher pianos that Brahms actually played. Moreover, the clarity of the Kantorski-Pope Duo's musical presentation is reproduced in stunning digital sound. The lower resonance blooms as if the listener were close to the pianos but in a sizable room. The bright passage work is rendered lively, but not cold or metallic. Unlike some recordings, there is never the feeling that one is presented with a sound trapped under the lid of the piano.
By not giving this work an opus number, Brahms himself may have inadvertently suggested that these dances are less serious. Only fifty years after their publication, one would-be wit suggested the Hungarian Dances were only good for a showy display of technique, writing, "the unhackneyed ones are quite as fetching as those played in movie-houses and at violin recitals ... it's up to duettists to exploit them properly." Fortunately, Kantorski-Pope Duo takes a more reverential approach in their presentation. The tempi and expression captured in this recording suggest the maturation of long study. In particular, the subito tempo changes and the broadening expression at structural articulation points are a testament to the shared commitment to ensemble playing between Kantorski and Pope. Their playing suggests the communal and mutually respectful playing Brahms imagined when he performed the work with Clara Schumann. Moreover, the keen sense for motion mediates some of the extremes of earlier recordings and the sensibilities of the modern listener. In all and in sum, this is a serious presentation of serious music and long overdue.
:: Paul Mathews
:: Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
:: The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University