Muzsikas and Marta Sebestyen: Live at Liszt Academy

Reprinted from Green Man Review.

cover imageThe music of Hungary is a rich gift to the world. Muzsikas is the best-known of the ensembles that have brought this mesmerizing tradition to the world since the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s. This recording is yet another demonstration of the power of this music and the mastery of Muzsikas. It documents a series of concerts in 2003 at the Liszt Academy. Several tracks feature the ethereal vocals of the ProMusica Choir of Nyiregyhaza, 50 young women directed by Denes Szabo.

On many of its projects, Muzsikas has interspersed music from folk and written “classical” sources, demonstrating the way Hungarian classical music fed on folk sources. Here they take much the same approach, with most of the choir’s songs drawn from the early 20th Century works of Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok, both of whom incorporated folk sources into their classical materials. Many of the folk dance pieces performed by Muzsikas and vocalist Sebestyen are documented as folk sources for compositions by Kodaly and Bartok.

If that sounds a bit dry and academic, rest assured the performances are not. Every one of the 16 tracks bursts with the rhythmic and soulful vitality of this vibrant music.

The orchestration for the instrumental pieces typically has the melody played by one or two violins, with the rhythm provided by a double bass and one or two violas, sometimes played in a ONE-two ONE-two unison, sometimes in down-beat, back-beat counterpoint. Dance suites often start with an instrumental section, followed by another with vocals, then more instrumentals, often beginning slow and increasing in tempo to a fever pitch. There are many variations, of course, and some different instruments added to the mix. In Muzsikas, Mihaly Sipos and Laszlo Porteleki play violins, Peter Eri viola and flute (kaval), and Daniel Hamar the bass. They’re joined on some numbers by Marton Eri on second viola, Arpad Toni on hammer dulcimer, and two dancers who provide percussion. One of the most intriguing instruments is the koboz or hit-cello — a cello-shaped instrument whose strings are hit with a sturdy bow to produce an insistent tonal rhythm.

The program is a delight from beginning to end, the clear, wafting choir pieces sprinkled among the melancholy ballads and manic dance suites. In one particularly wonderful pairing, Pro Musica sings a wordless piece aptly titled “Mountain Nights,” followed by Sebestyen singing a short unaccompanied folk version of a “Kyrie” from Moldavia.

The captivating piece called “Pe Loc,” features Peter Eri on the Romanian kaval flute. He plays unaccompanied for most of the piece, but with an arresting technique of singing while he plays, producing an otherworldly sound. When he’s joined by the percussive dancing of Zoltan Farkas and Ildiko Toth, it rises to another level altogether.

Another arresting performance comes from Sebestyen on “Ballad of the Murdered Shepherd,” which she sings in a fluttering recitative style, accompanied by Eri on flute. In the first section, he plays mostly long held single notes behind each phrase; in a second section, two skittering, moaning violins replace the vocals, and the flute takes to melodic flight; finally, the vocals rejoin all the instruments for an intense but ghostly finale.

This is followed by a 13-minute dance suite from central Transylvania that brings the house down, and a lovely denoument of two vocal numbers dedicated to St. Stephen, a brief a capella song by Sebestyen and a longer Kodaly hymn by the choir.

The sound is top-notch, especially for a live recording. My only complaint is that the applause is allowed to go on for too long between some of the tracks. But Live at Liszt Academy is an exciting addition to the stellar discography of Muzsikas. This disc may be difficult to find in the U.S., but you can find out more at the Muzsikas Web site.

(Muzsikas, 2003)

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