Modern Art Orchestra & K. Fekete-Kovács feat. Liebman, Dresch, Lukács, Harcsa, Gőz Bartók: 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs

BMCCD265 2018

The Modern Art Orchestra has taken Bartók at his word. This CD features a big band arrangement of Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, a piano work written between 1914 and 1918, published in 1920, in which Bartók arranged some of his favourites from the melodies he had collected in the 1910s. The orchestrators, Kristóf Bacsó, János Ávéd, Gábor Subicz and Kornél Fekete-Kovács, all the soloists of the Modern Art Orchestra, have the utmost respect for Bartók’s piano score. Not a single note is added to any of the movements, and they do nothing but the most perceptive of literary translators: as faithfully as possible to the original, they transpose the language of the piano to that of a large orchestra.


Modern Art Orchestra:
Artistic director, conductor: Kornél Fekete-Kovács

Kornél Fekete-Kovács – artistic director, conductor, trumpet, flugelhorn
Kristóf Bacsó – soprano and alto sax, flute
Dávid Ülkei – alto sax, clarinet
János Ávéd – tenor sax, flute
Balázs Cserta – tenor sax, tárogató, bagpipe, clarinet
Mihály Bajusznács – baritone sax, bass clarinet
Ádám Gráf – trumpet, flugelhorn
Zoltán Bacsa – trumpet, flugelhorn
Gábor Subicz – trumpet, flugelhorn
Balázs Bukovinszki – trumpet, flugelhorn
Zoltán Varga – horn
Bálint Képíró – horn
Attila Korb – trombone
Gábor Barbinek – trombone
Miklós Csáthy – bass trombone
Péter Kovács – tuba
Áron Komjáti – guitar
Gábor Cseke – piano
Ádám Bögöthy – double bass
László Csízi – drums

Guest Soloists:
David Liebman – tenor and soprano sax, recorder (1, 4, 5, 7, 11, 13)
Mihály Dresch – fuhun (4, 15)
Miklós Lukács – cimbalom (4, 5, 15)
Veronika Harcsa – vocals (15)
László Gőz – bass trumpet (2, 15)

About the album

Recorded at BMC Concert Hall on 20-21 November, 2017
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Viktor Szabó

Artwork: László Huszár / Greenroom 

Produced by László Gőz
Label manager: Tamás Bognár

Supported by the National Cultural Fund of Hungary


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Matti Komulainen - Jazzrytmit (fi)

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Z.K. Slabý - hisVOICE (cz)

Turi Gábor - Gramofon ***** (hu)

Márton Attila - Demokrata (hu)

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Komlós József JR - Alföldi Régió Magazin (hu)

Szabó Károly - (hu)

3500 HUF 11 EUR

Béla Bartók: 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs

Modern Art Orchestra & Kornél Fekete-Kovács feat. Dave Liebman, Mihály Dresch, Miklós Lukács, Veronika Harcsa, László Gőz

I-IV. Four Old Tunes

01 Rubato 5:05
02 Andante – Poco sostenuto – Piú; andante (Tempo I) – Poco sostenuto – Piú; andante 9:13
03 Poco rubato – Sostenuto 0:39
04 Andante 3:36


05 Scherzo. Allegro – Sostenuto, poco rubato – Tempo I 7:24
06 Ballad (Theme with variations). Andante – Piú; andante – Poco adagio – Piú; andante – Maestoso 2:10

VII-XV. Old Dance Tunes

07 Allegro 7:28
08 Allegretto 6:03
09 Allegretto 3:22
10 L’istesso tempo 3:49
11 Assai moderato 5:55
12 Allegretto 0:28
13 Poco piú; vivo – Allegretto 4:24
14 Allegro 7:13
15 Allegro – Piú; vivo – Poco piú; meno vivo 1:51
Total time 68:40

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Taking Bartók at his Word

The key to this disc is given in a short quotation heard towards the end of the fifth track. On an archive recording, Bartók himself speaks in his typical, calm voice, which we hear behind the dense improvisatory musical texture, and the soundbite is repeated: “If by abstract music you mean absolute music, without a program…” The quotation is from a New York radio interview made in 1944, and Bartók was answering the question of whether or not he considered the op. 14 Suite abstract music. His answer: “If by abstract music you mean absolute music, without a program, then, yes.” Bartók explains that there is no folk melody in the piece, and all the themes are his own idea, in other words (we might add) the music refers to nothing beyond itself, so in terms of the notions of nineteenth-century German music aesthetics it counts as absolute music. Later on in the interview, Bartók characteristically dodges another question related to what the piano piece Evening in Transylvania was about. Rather than answering the question, Bartók starts talking about the abstract structure of the movement, as if his music were merely a theoretical construction in sound, and nothing more. And yet anyone who at any time in their life has heard a sensitive performance of a single work by Bartók, or perhaps has come across a recording in which Bartók plays his own music, can feel something that many important scholars would concur with: that apart from a few exceptions Bartók’s works always have some kind of more or less hidden message. His music is always ‘about’ something. Whether independently of this they are perfect acoustic crystalline structures is at most a matter of the technical execution of the compositions. While this of course is what makes Bartók one of the most important composers of all time, for the listener this is of but secondary importance. What counts is the primary experience of how, through his music, Bartók elevates our spirits and plumbs the depths; how he calls us to account and prompts us to answer; how he makes us anxious and consoles us; how he keeps our emotions and intellect in a state of constant motion.

The Modern Art Orchestra has taken Bartók at his word. This CD features a big band arrangement of Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, a piano work written between 1914 and 1918, published in 1920, in which Bartók arranged some of his favourites from the melodies he had collected in the 1910s. The orchestrators, Kristóf Bacsó, János Ávéd, Gábor Subicz and Kornél Fekete-Kovács, all the soloists of the Modern Art Orchestra, have the utmost respect for Bartók’s piano score. Not a single note is added to any of the movements, and they do nothing but the most perceptive of literary translators: as faithfully as possible to the original, they transpose the language of the piano to that of a large orchestra. Between the movements however there are various improvisations, some more structured than others, which employ elements of contemporary music, jazz, and folk music to comment on Bartók’s original ideas. And in this case the basic idea is never abstract: tracing the texts of the original songs makes absolutely clear what is in any case suggested by Bartók’s arrangement – what a given song is about.

Through the improvisations the CD not only expounds (or develops) Bartók’s ideas, but from first note to last it also conveys the spirit of Bartók. In a 1942 paper Bartók wrote, in relation to the development of folk music: ‘ artificial erection of Chinese walls to separate peoples from each other bodes no good for its development. A complete separation from foreign influences means stagnation: well assimilated foreign impulses offer possibilities of enrichment.’  Timely words indeed. And they describe one of the main strengths of this CD perfectly. The soloists come from different musical worlds, different cultures, and the ‘well assimilated foreign impulses’ create an astonishing abundance. The legendary saxophonist (and flautist) David Liebman from New York is one of the biggest figures in American jazz, a long-time admirer of Bartók’s music (one of his grandfathers was Hungarian, and emigrated to America in the early 20th century); Mihály Dresch is the link between jazz and folk music; Miklós Lukács is an ‘all-round’ musician, bringing with him the sounds and thinking of contemporary music; László Gőz also has a contemporary music background (among others) and with him come electronics; while Veronika Harcsa, whose voice is capable of everything imaginable and otherwise, adds a vocal dimension to the instrumental space created by the music.

The texts of most folksongs are extremely dense, with individual words, metaphors, and ideas opening windows to a whole way of life. ‘I tie up my horse / to the weeping willow / I bend my head down / to his forelegs // I lay my head / in my sweetheart’s lap / I shed my tears / into her rose-bedecked apron’: so runs the text of the folksong Bartók set to open [1] of Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (the melody can be found with other texts, but this is how Bartók transcribed it in 1918 in Újszász, a small town in the northern part of the The Great Hungarian Plain). Bartók dresses this melody, originally in D dorian, in dense harmonies, and these wry, sensitive, expressive chords are a perfect illustration of the sadness in the text. We do not know what the reason for the sorrow is, why the tears are shed: there is no story, just the catharsis caused by the tragedy, and the burden on the soul: Bartók’s music conveys the emotion that finally overflows into tears with incredible power. At the end of the movement the music does not stop; as the orchestra peters out, the saxophone begins its monologue: a kind of continuation of a folksong without words, while in the background the musical process consists of electronically modulated orchestral sounds and becomes increasingly intense. Without a break we arrive at the second song [2] – ‘The rose my love gave me’. In Bartók’s arrangement the melody is heard twice, and in this orchestration, we hear it first on the saxophone, then on the tuba, the latter perhaps reminding the listener of the sound world of Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The theme of the folksong, like that of the opera, is lonesomeness, as is that of the third song, which is introduced by an extremely dramatic improvisatory section. In the lowest register, as if the ground has opened up, we hear a long pedal point, the bass trumpet starts a lonesome monologue, while the folk song ‘The wheat will be ripe’ is heard from a recording from the collection of one of the greatest Hungarian folklorists, the late Zoltán Kallós (1926–2018). All at once the music takes shape and a passionate saxophone solo, based on another Kallós recording, invites the other instruments to join in, and at the end we hear a collective lament, the whole orchestra sobbing together. ‘The wheat will be ripe, / if warmth strokes it daily, / my heart will be rent, / if sorrow strikes it daily’– runs the text of the third song. Bartók’s arrangement [3] is simple, and in line with this so is the orchestration, with the guitar and piano playing the accompaniment, and the melody in the tárogató (a 19th century Hungarian instrument akin to the saxophone). After a brief solo we soon find ourselves in the fourth song [4]: ‘A blue forget-me-not drooped over my shoulder, / My dear mother sent me out into the world’ – the theme is once more lonesomeness, yet the improvisatory commentary seems not to be despondent. Perhaps it was sent out into the world, but the fuhun (a clarinet-like instrument with a tone like a shepherd’s pipe) is soon joined by the saxophone and cimbalom. Together they wander through the musical space, and through mutual support are able to withstand the slings and arrows of the world.

Bartók composed the first four songs as a cycle and gave them their own title within the work – Four Old Tunes. The fifth and sixth stand separately, and contrast greatly with one another. ‘My wife is so pure and clean, she washes once a month’ – so starts the ironic text of the fifth song [5], and the orchestral version of the melody at times seems to allude to the circus (the sound is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s circus music). But could the circus not be considered one of the most accurate metaphors for life – even married life? If in his arrangement Bartók shows the awkward side of married life, the improvisation following the song turns serious, and against the backdrop of an incredibly sensitive orchestral accompaniment the solo saxophone seems to sing wordlessly of the different colours of connubial life. Then the cimbalom rallies and begins to quarrel with the saxophone in a rocking 5/4 time. Behind this increasingly intense dispute we repeatedly hear Bartók’s words on the abstract nature of music, quoted above.

At the centre of the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs is the chillingly beautiful ballad telling the story of Borbála Angoli [6], which was perhaps Bartók’s favourite from the cycle (he often played it in concert, sometimes even without the other movements). On 5 September 1918 he wrote to his wife, Márta Ziegler, that he had harmonized the famous ballad that he transcribed after hearing it performed by the eighteen- year-old Róza Ökrös in Vésztő in County Békés: ‘ is truly sensational to hear such a thing in Hungarian, and furthermore, right in the centre of the Plain, and what’s more in 7/8 time.’  The story of the girl who became pregnant and as a result was condemned to death is known in the folklore of many nations. In the Hungarian version the mother notices that her daughter’s dress ‘is grown shorter at the front, and longer at the back’, and finally it turns out the girl is expecting. The mother is unable to bear the shame and says her daughter must die. The girl sends a message to her sweetheart but in vain – the boy arrives too late. Having lost his beloved, and their child, he is unable to get over the tragedy, and commits suicide: ‘May my blood with your blood, / in one stream flow, / May my heart with your heart / in one tomb rest’. This movement is the only one on the disc to stand alone without any improvisatory commentary.

Bartók organized the last nine movements of the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs into a single cycle under the title Old Dance Tunes. Almost every one of them is what is known as a ‘duda-nóta’ (bagpipe tune), in other words a lively dance tune often also performed on that very instrument, which was one of Bartók’s favourites. Bartók transcribed the seventh song [7] with several texts during his 1910 field trip in Ipolyság (Šahy), and one of them again touches on a grave theme: ‘Simon has no lament / nor anyone to grieve him; / His embroidered coat does for a coffin / The leaves of the beech are his pall.’ After Bartók’s markedly rhythmic arrangement, the saxophone solo commences before a backdrop of electronically distorted orchestral sound, which then becomes increasingly desperate over an aggressive piano ostinato. The text and melody of the next song [8] are both very simple: ‘I climbed up the plum tree, / I ripped the leg of my trousers’. We hear the melody not only in the orchestra, but nostalgically, fragmentedly, in the voice, and overlaid on this (as if memories were being projected one on the other) is the improvisatory saxophone solo and the orchestral accompaniment. The ninth song [9] (’This way rooster, this way hen / this way is the footpath’) is played by the full orchestra in a vigorous arrangement, but when Bartók’s movement has finished, the musical process is interrupted by several tutti chords: a trumpet solo with sound effects finds its way back to the characteristic rhythmic cells of the melody, and from this grows a larger-scale sound, which leads without a break into the next movement, an amusing song about the wedding feast of the cricket and the fly [10]. Bartók composed the two songs in one, so the melody of ‘This way rooster, this way hen’ is heard again, the final bars several times, in fact. We hear various recordings of these few bars, first performed by the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra (in Bartók’s own symphonic orchestration), then played by various pianists: Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kocsis, Márta Gődény, a small child, Annie Fischer, Sviatoslav Richter, Andor Földes then Zoltán Kocsis once more, all in succession, then after several majestic chords the piano improvisation starts. This inspired, hymn-like, almost timeless solo is followed by material in a folk style, a perfect musical period, familiar, though it is unclear which folksong is being referred to. When the sampler plays it in retrograde, all becomes clear: this is the melody of the eleventh movement [11], which in 1910 in Nagymegyer (north of Hungary) Bartók transcribed with the following text: ‘You aren’t a girl, you aren’t / You don’t dare to kiss, / Perhaps you think / I cannot give it back // I can give it back, / I can kiss you / Until the rosy dawn / I can kiss you.’ The way we hear the melody, in a back-and-forth manner, is a wonderful symbol of the reciprocal relationship between man and woman. When the melody ends, after an extended pause for breath the drum and the bass launch into a sensuous ‘groove’, above which there blossoms an increasingly ecstatic saxophone solo.

The twelfth and thirteenth songs are again combined into one by Bartók: the melody ‘Sick woman, tired lad / Pull the bow, Gipsy lad / hiy-iy-iy’ has alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4 time [12], and the melody beginning ‘My horse Sarah is cream’ [13] is in the same time all the way through. But in the orchestral arrangement the bass and piano cut through the 2/4 time of the latter song with a 3/4 pulse, creating an exciting polymeter. The penultimate song [14] tells the amusing story of the girls of Izsap – they made dumplings in preparation for festivities, but the dumplings were eaten by the magistrate’s dog. Bartók’s piano version is just as colourful as the orchestration. In this case the improvisatory commentary ventures far from the mood of the melody: over a long-held B flat we hear a wordless vocalisation, with an interweaving bagpipe melody, creating a meditative atmosphere. The closing movement is based on an instrumental bagpipe tune, and Bartók transfers the virtuoso drone and burring of the bagpipe to the piano with astounding skill. In Modern Art Orchestra’s version the movement is introduced by a spine-tinglingly intensive dialogue between the fuhun and the cimbalom, but perhaps a better description of the scene would be parallel monologues. The bagpipe tune is heard from the entire orchestra, but this is not the end of the disc. After the last chord we hear a low D, leading us back to the key of the first song, and the solitary song of the fuhun concludes our travels in the Bartókian universe.

One might well ask what genre this CD is. Jazz? Folk music? Classical? All of these, which of course also means: none of them. In this sense the CD is a typically twenty-first century album, further confirmation that the era of genres is over. Authentic folk music is now almost non-existent, having been devoured by civilization; classical music shows some signs of life, but its habitat has been restricted to the reservations of concert halls, and though jazz in the broad sense is popular, in its artistic form it has taken firm steps to be condemned to the ‘reservation existence’ of classical music. Of course, there is no reason to be downcast, for if we are able to move out of the comfort zones of genres, we can find wonders such as the Modern Art Orchestra’s Bartók CD.

Gergely Fazekas
Translated by Richard Robinson

Thanks to:
Tamás Bognár, György Wallner, Viktor Szabó, Anna Gáspár, Eszter Ágoston, Ábris Blaskó.

Thanks to all musicians, who wholeheartedly contributed to this music that we created together. Thanks to Miklós Szilágyi, whom without our instruments would never sound the way they do.

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