Hungarian folk singer Márta Sebestyén performed at the Budapest Liszt Academy last week. Simon Broughton was there to witness the celebration of her 40-year career.
Márta Sebestyén, the great voice of Hungarian folk music, has been performing for 40 years. This concert at the Budapest Music Academy brought together various strands of her musical career – folk music, choral music (with a choir conducted by her mother) and early music, a more recent preoccupation where she’s been finding connections between medieval sources and the folk tradition.
Budapest’s Liszt Academy is one of the great concert halls of Europe, and, inaugurated in 1907, it is one of the best examples of Hungarian art nouveau. It reopened last year after five years of restoration and looks glorious. The tile- and mosaic-lined foyers give onto a warm interior restored to its original red colour with gilded laurel leaves in the roof. This setting was rather formal for the folk music that opened the programme. Márta Sebestyén was one of the many Hungarian musicians who travelled to Romania in the 1970s and 80s to collect music from the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, which was performed to great acclaim back in Budapest. Her raw, powerful voice seemed to come from the earth itself and, along with the folk band Muzsikás, brought her international acclaim. At the Liszt Academy on Thursday she performed with an excellent quartet of “hand-picked” folk musicians, led by violinist András Soós.
One of the best musical moments featured a piece from Mantua played by the early music ensemble, led by Judit Andrejszki and then taken up by the folk ensemble; the same music in completely different styles. Sebestyén had noticed that a piece of Jewish music in 15th-century Italian manuscripts is identical to a piece in the folk repertoire of one small village in Transylvania: ‘Méra’. Sebestyén excels at making connections like this.
The concert was subtitled ‘From Liszt Academy to Liszt Academy,’ which might seem like a celebration of going nowhere, but refers to the fact that Sebestyén was virtually brought up here. Her mother was a student of composer and music educator Zoltán Kodály and attended his classes during her pregnancy. In the concert, Sebestyén’s mother, Ilona Farkas, conducted a choir of former students of the Hunyadi School where she taught for many years in choral arrangements by Kodály and others. Sebestyén, who sang for Kodály as a child, stood down from her soloist role and simply joined the choir.
A surprise ingredient was the Saint Ephraim Male Choir, an exceptional ensemble conducted by Tamás Bubnó who made a powerful impression at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music this year. Sebestyén was as much curating this concert as performing it. After bringing everyone together for a well-known Hungarian Christmas song, the encore was Kodály’s gorgeous ‘Esti Dal’ (Evening Song), one of his most enduring folk song arrangements.
It was a celebration of a career that is still exploring interesting new directions.