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The Phenomenal Bartók and Hungarian Folkmusic

Los Angeles
Royce Hall, UCLA
11/21/2008 -  
Traditional: Szászcsávási táncok (Dances from Transylvania), Pásztornóták hosszúfurulyán (Long Flute Melodies) – long flute, vocal –, Kanásztáncok két hegedűn (Swineherd's Dances) – two violins –, Ugrós és friss (Transdanubian Ugros and fast Csardas)
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No. 4, I. Allegro
Traditional: Moldvai övestánc (Dance Music of Moldavia) – flute, lute, drum
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No. 4, II. Prestissimo, con sordino
Traditional: Fujnak a fellegek (Peacock Melody) – vocal
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No. 4, III. Non troppo lento
Traditional: Gyimesi táncok (Dances of Gyimes) – violin, gardon
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No. 4, IV. Allegretto pizzicato – V. Allegro molto
Béla Bartók: Violin Duos, with source tunes: Playback: Ardeleana (from Bartók archive), Traditional: Torontáli táncok (Dances of Torontál) – violin, gardon –, Violin Duo No. 44
Traditional: Pejparipam rezpatkója (The shoe of my horse) – vocal
Béla Bartók: Violin Duo No. 28
Traditional: Playback: Jocul Barbatesc (from Bartók archive), Jocul Barbatesc – vocal
Béla Bartók: Violin Duo No. 32 – Sonatina (transcribed by Endre Gertler) with traditional tunes
Traditional: Dudautánzás énekhangon (Vocal imitation of the bagpipes) – vocal, bagpipes –, Bear Dance, Gyimesi medvetánc és héjsza (Bear dance from Gyimes) – violin, gardon –, Pakulár ballada (Ballad of the murdered shepherd) – flute, violin, vocal
Béla Bartók: Rumanian Folk Dances (transcribed for strings by Arthur Willner) with source tunes, Bota és Invertita (Bota and Invertita) – Muzsikás string band –, Joc cu bata (Dance with Sticks), Braul (Waistband Dance), Pe loc (Pe Loc) – flute –, Pe Loc (Stamping Dance), Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance), Poarca Romaneasca (Rumanian Polka), Méhkeréki táncok (Dances of Méhkerék), Maruntel (Quick Dance)

Marta Sebestyén (vocalist)
The Takács Quartet: Edward Dusinberre (first violin), Károly Schranz (second violin), Geraldine Walther (viola), András Fejér (cello)
Muzsikás Hungarian Folk Music Ensemble: Mihály Sipos (violin, citera, vocal), László Porteleki (violin, koboz, vocal), Péter Éri (viola, mandolin, flutes, vocal), Dániel Hamar (bass, gardon, vocal)

The Takács Quartet (© Casey A. Cass)

Bela Bartók’s string quartets are recognized as one of mankind’s greatest achievements in music. They are exceedingly modern, composed in an idiom that expresses the angst and pathos of our lives as deeply and intensely as any music that has been written before or since. In an important sense, the Bartók quartets are as “new”, as profoundly radical as anything that is being written today. The extraordinary thing about this concert was that it revealed how closely that “newness” is related to its historic roots in the folk music of the Eastern European tavern, mountains and fields. In what might be described as an instance of “extreme musical authenticity”, the folk group Muzsikás and The Takács Quartet produced an evening of devastatingly ineffable beauty and emotion. The singer Marta Sebestyén seemed to have stepped out of a time machine, her voice sang so evocatively from the depths of the 19th century.

The inspiration for a joint concert with this program came from a suggestion by the renowned musicologist Joseph Horowitz at the 2001 Aspen Music Festival. As an artistic advisor to music ensembles, Horowitz has made this kind of cutting edge historical inquiry the hallmark of many of his programs. But only these exact musicians could perform this particular concert. Only these performers have the training and background to play the Bartók and the Hungarian Folk Music with this intensity of insight and authenticity.

The evening began with the Muzsikás ensemble playing seated, dressed in rough black and white, one of them with a wide brimmed black hat shading his face. A distant folk tune, a dirge like drone, gradually became a dance. As they stood up to play, the music moved from hauntingly evocative to exhilarating. At the end of the first piece, one of the Muzsikás players came forward to introduce the concert, describing a folk song to which Bartok devoted his life. They began by playing a wax recording that Bartók himself had made of the song. Then Marta Sebestyén sang the birdlike piece, accompanied by the tall wooden flute. The Muzsikás players then performed folk violin duets and a quartet, by turns elegiac and playful, joined by more of Sebestyén’s haunting vocals. Next came a string trio, with the gardon, a kind of cello used for percussion on both the strings and the body of the instrument. Bartók’s melodies and harmonies clearly grew out of this tradition.

When the Takács Quartet came onstage and began with the opening Allegro to Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4, their bright, round, full modern sound made a striking contrast to the Muzsikás ensemble. It was like stepping out of a painting by Marc Chagall into the plain daylight of the modern world. The next piece played by Muzsikás, Dance Music of Moldavia with the flute, drum and lute was the clearly the immediate inspiration for the Bartók quartet movement. The subsequent series of pieces took the same form: The Takács segued seamlessly into another quartet movement. Then the vocalist Marta Sebestyén sang in a kind of metallic murmur that was astonishingly also taken up by the Takács Quartet in their next piece, with the silvery zinc sound of a babies cry and a cello also like a human voice. A Muzsikás piece straight out of a village taverna leaned heavily on the percussive quality of the cello-like gardon, and led straight into the extreme percussion of the otherworldly all-pizzicato movement from Bartok’s Quartet No. 4.

After the intermission, the first pieces were Bartók’s three Violin duos from 1933, featuring both the composed versions and the original versions from the folk tradition. The original sources were played on recordings from Bartók’s archives, and Marta Sebestyén also performed some of the source material vocally. Then Károly Schranz from the Takács joined Mihály Sipos from Muzsikás to perform the violin duos as Bartók wrote them, offering a spectacular tonal contrast between the folk violin and the modern classical violin.

The imitation of the Hungarian folk bagpipe was another astounding musical phenomenon. First, Marta Sebestyén demonstrated the heartrending sound with her voice, an unearthly Eastern European song from a distant past, eliciting cries of delight from the audience. Then the Takács, with the addition of the Muzsikás double bass, showed how Bartók loved to use the same “imitation of the bagpipe” technique for the string quartet. Marta Sebestyén used the technique again in her rendition of the Ballad of the Murdered Shepherd, a performance from a moonlit field at night that had the audience whooping for her.

In the final pieces and the encore, the Takács and Muzsikás ensembles alternated and then joined to play together as one large group. In dark mist shrouded tones and plaintive birdsong, in elegy and in dance, the two groups were resplendently united by one musical spirit. The result was an unforgettable evening that opened a window into an astonishing universe.

Thomas Aujero Small



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