X Bartók

text: Storm Bakker

With very low horror intervals on the piano, this music kicks in the listeners bedroom door. The album is called Péter Sárik Trio x Bartók, and contains 10 Pieces of the Hungarian composer, adapted for jazz piano trio by the pianist/leader, who will gig the festival Amersfoort Jazz in The Netherlands in May this year.

Entarterte Kunst

The album contains three of the six ‘Romanian Folk Dances’ that Béla Bartók originally composed for piano, later orchestrated for small ensemble. The dances were soon transcribed for orchestra, piano & violin and string quartet and gained worldwide recognition at the hands of Transylvania violinist Joseph Szigeti, who was a lifelong friend of the composer. The dances are based on tunes from Transylvania, played on fiddle or shepherd's flute, some of which Bartók learned from gypsy violinists. Bartók loved folk music. As a researcher, the "father of ethnomusicology" focused particularly on the musical folklore of Hungary and Romania, taught to him by farmers and shepherds. He recorded the old Magyar songs (together with his friend Zoltán Kodály), but unfortunately, the Nazis - who labeled Bartók as a degenerate artist, destroyed a large part of this collection. According to Péter Sárik, who visits Transylvania regularly, the region still shows the face it had in Bartók’s time. He tells us that he's "greatly inspired by the landscapes, odours, flavours, music, dances and the local people.” It's the kind of ethno-cultural background that we as poor Dutchmen can only envy.


Transylvania has been described as ‘the last truly medieval landscape in Europe’. The region is a melting pot of cultures, starting with the Thracian people, the Dacians, conquered by the Romans, later on by Attila’s Huns and other tribes from the east, Gepids and Avars, followed by the Hungarians also known as 'Magyars', who in the 9th century came from the eastlands of the Ural (Kazachstan), and appeared along the enigmatic Khazars at the entrance of the Carpathian Basin. In the Middle Ages, these Magyars were transplanted as Szekelys (“frontier guards”) to the eastern front, to defend the kingdom against the Ottomans. Along with the Transylvanian Saxons from Siebenbürg, who had settled there from the North-Western territories of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), and with the Hungarian nobility, the Székelys formed the 'Unio Trium Nationum', an alliance against the adversary Ottomans, but also against the rebellious peasants from Moldavia and Wallachia. After the Hungarian–Romanian war in 1919-1920, fought between the First Hungarian Soviet Republic and the Kingdom of Romania, Transylvania with the Széklerland included, was annexed by Romania. That is why Béla Bartók, living in Budapest at the moment, changed the name of his 'Romanian Folk Dances from Hungary' (Magyarországi román népi táncok) into 'Romanian Folk Dances'.


Also many Jews and Gypsies have been living in Transylvania. Since the 17th century, the Danube Jews were a target of religious persecution and racism in Romanian society, also in the principalities Wallachia and Moldavia, where they became victims of pogroms and persecutions, often motivated by blood libel accusations. According to Elie Wiesel and the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, 2003, about half a million Romanian jews perished in the holocaust during World War II. Béla Bartók disapproved of the Hungarian government’s friendship with Nazi Germany. He refused to dispel the rumours that he was Jewish and protested against Hungary’s antisemitic laws in 1938, before leaving for the USA in 1940, where he died 5 years later..


The album opens strongly with the first of the Romanian Folk Dances (also called Bot tánc / Jocul cu bâtă), emerging from a 3-3-2 time signature into an up tempo jazz feel, followed by a slow 4/4 rock pulse with wild piano impro, closed by a drum vamp that turns out to be an smartly permutated 4 x 4 time signature. The tune itself comes from Mezőszabad (Mureș County), a Transylvanian commune in Szeklerland, with a high Székely Hungarian majority. It’s a ‘stick dance’, an old European tradition mainly known from Catalonia and Wales, but also established in the Balkan and Danube regions. Two opposite rows of male or female dancers elaborate rhythmic patterns of stick-clashing, while hopping and frisking in traditional dresses. It seems that drummer Attila Galfi is referring to the sound of the holm oak brenches, by hitting his snaredrum with rimclicks.


Also the other Romanian Dances (III and IV) are also exceptionally well played. The Trio proves once again, that technical ingenuity and deep emotions go well together. The fourth Romanian dance comes from Bucsony, Alsó-Fehér County (today Bucium, Alba county in Romania), and is a mystical ballad with elements reminiscent of the Spanish key. It has an  impressive lead solo by young bassist Tibor Fonay, although we wait for the agressive Bartók Pizzicati in vain. No III is a dance called Topogó / Pe loc (In One Spot) and comes from Egres (Igriș) in the Banat region, but its melody reminds of Middle Eastern flute, now played by Sárik on piano, contains a lot of syncopic handclapping, evolving into exciting klezmer vamp. It is the last piece of the album and ends with a bang. From the well known ‘Mikrokosmos Suite’, Péter Sárik Trio plays No 122, also starting with odd meter handclapping and complex structures, followed by some smooth jazz improvising. The other pieces from that suite is No. 113, an up tempo 7 time signature, with the typical magic melodies of Bartók, which takes the listener to dark forests, where the gnomes dance around the fire, gypsy girls lift their skirts and bats fly from the Bran Castle tower.

Allegro Barbaro

Péter Sárik demonstrates that the music of Bartók (often based on folk harmonies and modal scales, often moving away from Western harmonic centres altogether), lends itself perfectly to modern jazz adaption, like artists such as Chick Corea and Eef Albers have already shown in the past, and which Stanley Jordan and Adam Neely are doing nowadays. In fact, Sárik 's arrangements are, apart from being honest and tasteful, sometimes even more exciting than the "classic" originals; the subtle arrangements combined with the adventurous jazz passages, surprising alterations, dominant 7 b10-chords, walking bass, unisono breaks and abrupt silences, some slight polyrhythmics, then again brushes and ethereal harmonies over a modal bass pattern (such as in 'Piano Concerto No. 2') or a staccato interpretation of ‘Etude #1’ with invigorating drumming. The captivating pieces ‘For Children’ and the modal ‘Two- and Three-part Choruses’ are the most appealing, for the innocent or conservative listener. The least accessible appears to be the dissonant ‘Allegro Barbaro’, that almost leans towards zeuhl rock - a genre that Sárik will not know about.


It makes the Péter Sárik Trio x Bartók album a feast for the listener who does not shy away from the inappropriate, but instead likes to be enchanted and blown off his feet at the same time. Sárik is the first to admit that Bartók's music was actually very modern and often difficult to understand. “Even for classical music fans”, Sárik says. “We hope that assisted with drums, double bass and jazz, this music becomes more enjoyable.”