Folk music is the one of the most natural expressions of who we are. The classical repertoire is full of works written by composers who have tapped into historical treasure-troves of folk music as source material. The results illuminate the source as much as produce extraordinary masterpieces.
Concerto Budapest’s “Roots and Routes” program on Jan. 26 in MÜPA’s Bela Bartók Hall explored several folk-inspired tapestries with song-and-dance inflected scores by Liszt, Dvorak, and a world premiere by Levente Gyöngyösi, aided in part by the folk ensemble Muzsikás Együttes who served up the source material.
The sheer amount of folk music from all the provinces of the wider Carpathian basin and areas of Romania populated by Hungarians is a goldmine for any composer. Romanian-born Gyöngyösi is one of those who have this legacy in his own heritage. His orchestral suite “Úgy elmennek, ha mehetnek” (I’d like so much to leave, if I could) employs two folk songs he learned from an old Transylvanian lady that in turn inspired this vivid work of brilliantly mixed stylistic components.
The orchestral suite was commissioned by Concerto Budapest’s maestro András Keller and the title is a song from Transylvania while the other is from the Csángó region of eastern Romania. It was scored for solo folk ensemble (two fiddles, viola, bass, cimbalom, and shepherd’s flute) and chamber orchestra. The five ensemble soloists were the well-known Muzsikás Együttes who were in the forefront of the dance-house movement during the Socialist period in Hungary. Since 1973, they have been playing folk styles from the Carpathian basin all over Europe. In the MÜPA concert, they served as the Source — playing the original folk music that the scores of Liszt and Gyöngyösi used as their inspirations.
Muzsikás Együttes and the orchestra, in alternation, performed the folk sources and the orchestral versions of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies No. 2 and 3 with great aplomb before launching into Gyöngyösi’s score. The slippery Romanian style of fiddling — using improvisational phraseology marked by slurring and devil-may-care intonation — gave the country colors to us up front, followed by rapid-fire bowing, then amusing curlicues of ornamentation in the woodwinds. (First-desk clarinetist Csaba Klenyán provided stunning expertise in the many florid solos throughout both scores.)
Gyöngyösi’s piece began with the solo folk violin (Mihály Sipos), then woodwind flurries that imitated the ornamentations heard in the Liszt, followed by a dizzying dance that took unexpected melodic twists and turns. Hand-clapping, drones, and foot-tapping were featured in another intoxicating dance with syncopated rhythms, and the following section featured the shepherd’s flute (or “long flute,” as explained to me by Muzsikás’ bassist Dániel Hamar, who said the shepherds each make their own flute according to the length of their arms.) This flute is usually self-accompanied by the player’s own voice as he sings underneath the melody he’s playing — as did Péter Éri here. The orchestral woodwinds immediately imitated Éri’s performance and took off in a whirlwind of furious violin licks and beguiling melodies using oriental scales.
Gyöngyösi’s maintenance of a strong rhythmic component that permeated those textural novelties fired up considerable impetus throughout. His particularly clever use of French horns treated them like buoyant sonic pillows that boosted the energy and increased the color spectrum as their communal chords rose in pitch. Gyöngyösi’s skillful orchestration took as much of a starring role as his ingenious interpolation of the many stylistic quirks of the folk idioms. The only problem was the ending — I didn’t want it to end.
Maestro Keller and the orchestra capped the evening with a rousing performance of the first suite of Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances, Opus 46,” with its luscious waves of delicious Czech folk dance melodies, entrancing orchestrations, and its bittersweet evocation of a long-gone romantic era.