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Takács Quartet and Muzsikás

Additional Commentary by Jens F. Laurson:

A performance of the Takács Quartet together with Muzsikás, the Hungarian folk group -- a concert at the Freer Gallery of Art in February 2004 -- was the first time I heard that formidable quartet. It was a performance that left so indelible an impression on me, that I went to seek out every Takács performance within reach. It was also a concert in which a performance of Bartók’s third string quartet – with the Muzsikás renderings of the authentic tunes that made for much of the inspiration of Bartók interpolated between the movements – was so driven, so perfect, so pulsating and bursting with the joy of music-making that it converted one Bartók neophyte and one Classical Music neophyte on the spot.

I remember Muzsikás, too, the group of Hungarian teachers and professionals who dig out their often primitive folk instruments and tour the world with Magyar tunes. One such instrument, a bass of sorts, almost annoyed me, so pointless seemed the imitation of the shape of a double bass when in fact it was more or less a wooden tub with a neck and one butchers yarn stretched across… incessantly beaten with a stick. It wasn’t pretty but on occasion insightful. The fact that they never disturbed from the Takács’s performance of the Bartók, however, was their greatest achievement… or perhaps the Takács’s.

Jens F. Laurson, Dip Your Ears No. 8: Béla Bartók, The Six String Quartets, Takács Quartet (Ionarts, August 5, 2004)
Starting in London earlier this month, the concert collaboration between the Takács Quartet and the Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikás began a new tour. This time, they are involving another artist, Hungarian folk singer Márta Sebestyén. The program combines Bartók's fourth string quartet and other pieces inspired by the folk tunes that the composer collected in the Hungarian countryside. They do this by playing, in some cases, copies of Bartók's cylinder recordings and, in other cases, singing or playing transcriptions that he made. An article by Michael Church (Classical asks folk for next dance, January 13) in The Independent previewed the London concert on January 14:
"We will try to create a unified musical pleasure," says Muzsikas's bassist Daniel Hamar. But how will the two ensembles relate to each other? "First, we will set up an atmosphere with 20 minutes of Hungarian folk music, then the Takacs will start playing Bartok's Fourth Quartet, but we will insert traditional tunes in between movements." Next, a Bartok violin duo performed by a folk player and a classical player; and when the Takacs then plays Bartok's Romanian Dances, Hamar will add his bass sound. "I'll play on gut strings with a short bow for an un-classical effect." Muzsikas are classically trained, but started playing Hungarian village music during the folk revival of the Seventies. "We listened to archive recordings made by Bartok himself," says Hamar, "but realised it couldn't be done using classical techniques. So we went to the villages to discover how it should be done. In the end, we only found what we needed from Hungarian musicians living in Romania."
Jens heard the first incarnation of this program, which the two groups presented together in the United States a couple years ago. He remembers the experience in the sidebar commentary. An anonymous author contributed a review of the London concert (Takacs Quartet/Muzsikas, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, January 19) for The Independent:
When he made his field recordings, he was more concerned about refreshing creative impulses than preserving tradition. Yet, as in England, there has been a spin-off in the subsequent folk revival. Groups such as Muzsikas, going since 1973, can hear the way it was done a century ago. One feature of this concert was to play excerpts from Bartok's collection, which validated the singing and playing styles as clearly as you could wish. Muzsikas, joined by the folk diva Marta Sebestyen, started with a set of songs and dances. The regular phrases, the duelling violins over rock-steady, basic accompaniment by three-string viola and bass, sounded more like what you hear in Kodaly's music than memories of Bartok.
I am not yet aware if the two groups will be touring the United States again, but I would very much like to hear this program myself.


Garth Trinkl said...

My Hungarian born Washington friend András, and I, thoroughly enjoyed the joint Takács Quartet together with Muzsikás concert at the Freer Meyer Auditorium in February of 2004. It was an example of the Freer-Sackler's superb, innovative cross-cultural music programming which also included the somewhat similar cross-cultural program, this past November or so, featuring the Four Nations Baroque Ensemble and Music From China, playing music from the 18th century. (There is a recording available, by Muzsikás, tracing the relationship of Bartok to Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Turkish folk music. I don't have time now to look up the citation. Readers interested can contact András at the Politics and Prose book and record shop here in D.C.)

Perhaps Jens was less familiar with European folk instruments than he might have expected to have been given the lively European and world ethnomusicalogical scenes in Berlin and Hamburg, and, I assume, Munich, as well. (Though I appreciate his naive reaction to the sight of the mono-string folk instrument.)

(Other readers may have heard the sublime singer Márta Sebestyén in one of her earlier Washington area performances, with Muzsikás, at Wolftrap or the Birchmere.)

I'm sure that Charles will enjoy these groups when they next appear together in this area.


(I recall being approached after the concert with the request to attend a private Cleveland Park house concert fundraiser for the Takacs SQ, which was seeking additional funding for the completion of their recordings, recently released on London, of the complete Beethoven SQs, which I believe recently won a major music industry prize. Maybe another reader here has that story.)

Happy new year, Charles and Jens. Keep up the fine reviews.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, thanks for that, as usual.

jfl said...

it was a naive reaction to a naive instrument. there is an active folk scene in bavaria (i partook on several occasions - including orff-led workshops) -- but most instruments i remember from then at least made a discernable and appreciable sound. that ghastly pseudo-bass did not... at least not to my naive ears. or rather: it did... but the shape of the instrument had nothing to do with the sound it made... and that logical impurity, that disconnect was what annoyed me. as a five-year old i built a violin out of a wooden box, some wires, a neck and a bridge. it looked like a naive violin and sounded like a broken bicycle. i was thus cured from the idea that shape and sound are related and at the same time became intolerant to anything where form doesn't follow function. :)