Csardas – Hungarian Gypsy Music – Ferenc Santa and his Gypsy Band
CSÁRDÁS – Hungarian Gypsy Music
by Derek Lim
Have you ever been entranced by gypsy music? Ever since I heard Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, I have. This disc featuring Ferenc Sánta and his Gypsy Band is a compilation of gypsy (or “Romany” as the gypsies are wont to call themselves) pieces. These wandering people (hence “gypsies”), besides their reputation as a hot-blooded and rash people, are also well-known as a “race” of extremely talented musicians. Sadly the music of this people has been neglected as they have always been looked down upon as thieves and bandits, a point which is unfortunately undeniable, though over-emphasized. In Germany, for example, they have never been accepted, and are to this day treated as third- or fourth- class citizens, Ausländer.
Most of the pieces here have not been recorded before, and I suspect that many of these are not written down in score. This disc enables this wonderful music to be heard without having to buy an air-ticket to Hungary. A lot of music by many famous composers is based on the tradition of Romany music, especially the music of Bartok (nearly his entire output) and Liszt (try his Hungarian Rhapsodies) . Brahms also contributed with his famous Hungarian Dances (Naxos 8.550110). We can well see the origin of some of these masterpieces when we listen to these pieces on the disc.
The gypsy band is apparently the mainstay and one of the most important components of a gypsy tribe. From very young, the gypsy children are placed in the band, and a violin stuck under their chin. They have no pedagogy, but the results are nevertheless outstanding. Georges Enesco (1881-1955, also spelt Enescu), Menuhin’s teacher was trained in such a tradition – his playing is described as one of the most fiery ever. Unfortunately the extant recordings we have of his playing do not reflect him at his best. Listening to Ferenc Sánta’s playing, one perhaps has some idea of the glory of Enesco’s skills.
Born in 1945 in Kaposvár, Sánta was trained at the Music Academy and has played in different symphony orchestras. Hence his wonderful technique – despite his classical training he has lost none of the excitability that makes gyspy music alive. His playing is truly virtuostic — listening to it one can imagine the Paganini tradition of virtuoso playing — the dare-devilness of the Caprices finds its echo in this gypsy music. Even if one can’t appreciate the music (and it would take a really conservative person not to) one can certainly enjoy the display technique. His spiccato is very good and his ricochet bowing and artificial harmonic portamenti are to die for, and mostly unlearnable, according to a friend of mine who listened to this CD (he has played the Sibelius Concerto)
Of all the pieces on the disc, half are Csárdás and most of the other half Hungarian Songs. Monti’s most famous encore piece Csárdás is included here and played wonderfully to best effect. Dinicu, one of whose compositions the violinist Jascha Heifetz later revived as the very popular Hora Staccato, is represented here by his Skylark — a piece often imitated on various instruments, including Chinese instruments such as the gaohu and banhu. This piece imitates various birds. When hearing this one is reminded of the reports of Paganini’s imitation of chickens and other farmyard animals. Surely this must have been what it may have sounded like.
The gypsy band itself offers accompaniment, even though it is by no means the most sympathatic — in fact ensemble often breaks down — the players obviously have fun playing and they are clearly virtuoso players in their own right. A lot of the playing is very spontaneous — the musicians seem to be “jamming” all the way, taking turns to play the oomh-paa parts. The instruments of the band are themselves of considerable interest — besides the violin, most of them are rarely seen.
The tárogató, an instrument similar in timbre to that of the clarinet, provides much colour, in parts making everything sound very traditional Russian. The cimbalon, or dulcimer has a solo piece on this disc, the Doïna and Hora, which shows off the players own fantastic technique. The cimbalon has never had a place in the western orchestra, but it finds its equivalent in the Chinese Orchestra as the yangqin. Overall I find I like the more mellow and less jarring sound of the yangqin a lot more. In fact I plan to transcribe this (with time) for yangqin and I am curious at the results.
This disc was recorded in a single day(!) at the Festetich Castle, Budapest with an apparently all-Hungarian team of producers and engineer. Satisfying sound, though sometimes too close. It’s admittedly very difficult to balance a piece with no score at all and to this end, the engineer Gábor Mocsáry does an admirable job. There are some notes in this release, though not very comprehensive. One wishes though that they could have inserted also some pictures of the gypsy band, and their instruments. Also the names of the band players could have been included, since Ferenc Sánta does not play in every single piece. But these are the only gripes I guess.
Seldom have I found a disc so satisfying — even if it were to retail it at full-price it would still be very worth the buy. With Naxos CDs firmly in the bargain price bracket, this disc is warmly recommended to anyone who has had more than a passing interest in the traditional gypsy music as played on “authentic instruments”.