There has been a revival of a great deal of music written in the years around 1900 by composers who weren't aiming relentlessly toward the Shangri-La of atonality, and the full variety of the age has become apparent. Except in his homeland, Hungarian composer and violinist Jenö Hubay was little more than an entry in old music dictionaries as of the mid-'90s. Even in Hungary, the notes to this release tell us, he was despised by the Bartók generation. Yet the virtuoso violin literature of Eastern Europe has plenty of forgotten joys to offer. If you've heard the young Bulgarian virtuosa Bella Hristova on one of her appearances on A Prairie Home Companion, you've heard some Eastern European music that's a third Liszt, a third Fritz Kreisler, and a third strolling violinist at your local Hungarian restaurant. The liner notes of this German release compare these Scènes de la Csàrdà with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. The comparison is accurate enough; Hubay (1858-1937) lives in Liszt's harmonic world, and these nine short pieces (from a set of 11) take off from Hungarian folk rhythms in a similar way. Yet Hubay is folkier, schmaltzier, and, for the right mood, more fun than Liszt. These pieces, based on the csardas, a Hungarian folk dance that has been called the tango of the East, were written for violin and piano, but some of them were arranged for orchestra by the composer; similar arrangements by violinist Michael Jelden and others round out the orchestral set here. Mostly between five and ten minutes long, they tend to be cast in simple two-part structures, with a highly emotional slow half and some real fireworks to conclude. Structurally there is little ambition except in the last piece in the set, where Hubay keeps you guessing between a stumpy three-note double- or triple-stopped motif and its endless glittering elaborations.
In the hands of a powerful violinist who can lay it on thick, these pieces come alive. The young German violinist Michael Jelden has the requisite technique and heart-on-the-sleeve emotion, but the recording falls short in supporting him; the Slovakische Staatsphilharmonie Kosice gets through the notes but is recorded in such a way that it sounds like one is hearing the 78 rpm records on which this music originally was recorded. The liner notes are laid out in all kinds of cute circles, arrows, and triangles, but fail to mention such basic information as when these pieces were written (they appeared periodically between 1879 and 1920, attesting to their ongoing popularity). A recording by Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham (on two CDs, done on violin and piano, with other Hubay pieces) on Hyperion is more professionally made, but Jelden is an exciting player. Sample the pair; this is beautifully written violin music, and reactions to the violin tend to be personal.