International Record Review
"When Austrian and Russian troops finally crushed Hungarian aspirations for national autonomy in 1849, waves of political refugees swept through the port of Hamburg on their way into exile overseas. Among them was the brilliant violinist Ede Reményi, whose 1850 concert in Brahms’s native city made a deep impression on the 17-year old composer. Returning to Europe in 1852, Reményi engaged Brahms as an accompanist for a German tour. During their travels, Brahms met the Hungarians Joseph Joachim in Hanover and Franz Liszt in Weimar. Joachim became Brahms close friend, champion and occasional artistic collaborator. However, the six weeks Brahms spent in Weimar did little but inculcate and antipathy to the progressive aims of Liszt and the ‘New German School’. In any case, well before his arrival in Vienna, Brahms had first-hand experience with the verbunkos, that urban popular style, which, for most of the nineteenth century, was considered to be authentic Hungarian folk music.
This exposure would echo throughout his artistic career, though never more directly nor more vividly than in the 21 Hungarian Dances for piano duet. Published in four books in 1869 and 1880 by Simrock, they became something of a cash cow for both composer and publisher. Their popular success prompted Brahms to arrange the first ten as piano solos in 1874 and, two years later, to orchestrate Nos. 1, 3 and 10. The entire set, in various transcriptions (as described above) is heard on this superb recording by the Danubia Orchestra Óbuda under its founding Artistic Director Domonkos Héja.
The excellent technical values on this CD, the orchestra’s third for Warner Classics, reveal a sophistication of sound and execution rarely encountered in so young an orchestra. The Danubia orchestra was originally established in 1993 as a youth ensemble, drawing its membership primarily from students at the Béla Bartók Gymnasium, the preparatory school for Budapest’s famed Liszt Academy. The fact that conductor and orchestra have literally grown up together is surely a key factor in the cohesion and subtlety of their music-making.
From the first bars of No. 1, the full, rich, yet focused and finely blended string sound is luxuriously evident. One cannot imagine the oboes that open No. 3 played better, their nasal poignancy contrasting vividly with the glowing, slightly ominous lower brasses that follow. Similarly virtuosic wind playing contributes to the success of Nos. 12 and 13. Yet, quite apart from the sensual pleasure of the orchestra’s sound, these performances exhibit an extraordinarily developed sense of pacing and tempo. The extravagant rabutos in the most famous of the set, No. 5 (F sharp minor in the piano version, G minor in the orchestral), routinely sound artificially superimposed and maudlin. Here they breathe perfectly naturally in a give-and-take that stretches but never undermines the rhythmic pulse. The same sophisticated rhythmic poise, accomplished with complete unanimity, is evident throughout the dances. Savour the melancholy languor that characterizes Nos. 7 and 17, the carefree strutting pace of No. 7, or the wistful lilt of the Dorian strains of No. 11.
It can be fun to alternate listening to the orchestral transcriptions of individual dances with the original piano duets. A recent release of the latter by Nicholas Angelich and Frank Braley is coupled with the D minor Piano Concerto, though the classic account by Julius Katchen and Jean Pierre Marty (part of the complete Brahms piano music that also includes Katchen’s performance of the solo versions) is hard to beat. Among orchestral recordings, Abbado’s performances with the Vienna Philharmonic represent what might be described as a more cosmopolitan take on the repertoire. The recording by Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (still my favourite) shares something in common with their definitive readings of the Liszt orchestral Rhapsodies (also for Philips – on both these discs distinguished Romany soloists join the ensemble to interpolate improvised cadenzas).
The youthful, scintillating performances by Héja and his Danubia players are certainly worthy of comparison with any of these. Meanwhile, their next release, in whatever repertoire they choose, can’t come soon enough"