Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


THE BARTÓK ALBUM Muzsikás featuring Márta Sebestyén (vocals) and Alexander Balanescu (violin) Hannibal HNCD1439



This is not a disc of film music but the lead singer of Muszikás , Márta Sebestyén, has recently become more widely known after her appearance on the soundtrack of The English Patient. I find the disc fascinating and wish to draw it to your attention.  Bartók deeply identified with the indigenous folk-music of Hungary and its influence can be heard in many of his works - not just the actual tunes or rhythms but, as he said in 1927, 'I place great emphasis on the work of technical arrangement .... I do not like to repeat an idea without change and I do not bring back one single part in exactly the same way. This method arises out of my tendency to vary and transform the theme ... the extremes of variation, which are so characteristic of our folk-music are at the same time the expression of my own nature' (Ujfalussy: Bela Bartók quoted in McCabe Bartók Orchestral Music, BBC publications 1974). Hungarian folk song was virtually unknown to the middle classes in which Bartók grew up, apart from the use made of them by Liszt and Brahms. However, in 1904 Bartók became interested having heard his neighbour's maid singing The red apple has fallen in the mud. He was so taken by the song that he composed his own version of it and arranged for the original to be published too. He then set out with a portable phonograph to collect thousands of the folk songs of his native Hungary. In this he was assisted by Kodaly. At almost exactly the same time, Holst and Vaughan Williams were doing the same for British Folk song.

There have been various revivals of interest in folk music with the advent of the tape rercoder , cine and video and the general popular youth interest in folk music in the 1960s and 70s. The members of the performing group Muszikás were among them, and went out into the villages of Hungary to learn the instrumental techniques. 'We found ourselves fascinated by the beauty and richness of folk art - and this experience changed our lives'. With the growth of the Dance House Movement Muszikás found themselves being invited to play around the world. Having performed at a Bartók festival in New York, where Bartók's music was well known but the folk music was a new encounter, the group decided to make this record.

On this disc we have three things: some of the original field recordings made by Bartók, reinterpretations of these by Muszikás retaining the folk presentation and finally examples of Bartók's own music that incorporated the folk tunes he collected. This is a great idea and it works very well.

The disc opens with a whirling csárdás of increasing speed - Dunántúli friss csáardások (Transdanubian fast csárdás) . Muszikás learned this from a band in Bogyisla and it contains four melodies which Bartók would have known well, the last of which he incorporated into his Hungarian Peasant songs for Piano op 20. This gets the disc off to a wonderful, rustic start.

There follows an original phonograph recording of a traditional Romanian song, Jocul Bãrbãtesc, which he collected from a country village in Máramaros (Maramures). This melody was used in Violin duo No.32 'Dance of Maramaros' which is then played by a folk fiddler, Mihály Sipos and the classical violinist, Alexander Balanescu. Finally ,Muszikás let rip in their own style with vocal by Márta Sebestyén -

Hey, my little lover,
Don't be shivering so hard
For you're yellow-hued as wax
Don't be shuddering so sorely.

That is the format on the disc and to fully detail it would be to reproduce the accompanying booklet notes. In summary similar treatment is given to:

On the Rivers Bank - a Csango Hungarian tune

Swineherd's Dance for two violins - a leaping dance for Michaelmas when the shepherds received their pay - used by Bartók in For Children

Dunántúli ugrósok ( a Transunabian ugrós) 2 violins, viola, bass and tambura (a plucked string instument)

Shepherd's flute song played by Zoltán Juhász on a very breathy long flute which gives it almost a didjeridu flavour.

Muszikás then play a Forgácskúti lad's dance followed by an original phonograph recording of My Horse's shoe and Bartók's rather melancholic Violin Duo No 28 'Sorrow'. This is rounded off by Muszikás performing a Slow Lad's Dance from Bonchida (2 violin, viola, bass and cimbalon giving a Hungarian flavour)

Things liven again with Magyarbece csárdás with Márta Sebestyén's nasal singing. This old-style melody came from Southern Transylvania which Bartók used in the fourth of his 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs.

This is followed by an ordinary flute but played in a similar style to the long flute, a sound produced by both blowing and singing into the instrument, in this instance accompanied by the sound of dancing.

Violin, viola and bass play a whistful Bota Dance which is a male stick dance from Upper Marosvidék in Tranyslvania used in Bartók's Rhapsody for violin and Piano. The mode of playing the viola and bass is to give the effect of violin with accordian accompaniment.

In 1912 Bartók was inspired by a melody from Petrovasile in Torontál to write the 44 Violin Duos. We hear Muszikás play the Torontál Dance - a slow csárdás - and the original (rather warbling) phonograph recording leads to a performance of the 44th duo 'Transylvanian Dance' with Muszikás rounding off with Lad's Dance from the Fuzes which has a similar halting rhythm.

Another lamenting graveyard song  follows: 'The Churchyard gate is finally open' . This type of melody is known as dawn song. The mood lightens with a vocal Kalotaszeg dances - Bartók frequently wore waistcoats from the Kalotaszeg region where he found that virtually every village had its own string band.

The last track is the first recording that Bartók made in 1906: 'I left my Homeland' sung by András Borek . This was the song that profoundly altered Bartók's career ,which he then reworked into Hungarian Folksongs 1. It was this melody that was sung to him by the audience at his last appearance at the Music Academy before he emigrated to America:

I set out from my homeland,
From famous, little Hungary
I looked back when I reached halfway
And the tears spilled from my eyes.

I have found this sensitively assembled recording illuminating, instructive and vastly entertaining. My enjoyment has been enhanced by the extraordinarily detailed, 24-page booklet (English only) compiled by Muszikás - clearly a labour of love and without which I could not have written this review.

Now how about that follow-up demonstrating Vaughan Williams and Holst's use of indigenous folksong?


Len Mullenger


Len Mullenger

Return to Index