Thursday, August 25, 2011

Márta Sebéstyen's "I Can See the Gates of Heaven": Music Review

She's one of my favorite singers. Her work with Muzsikás, the Hungarian folk ensemble, and her soundtrack and world music collaborations brought her deserved acclaim, but not as much as she deserves. I hope Márta Sebestyén’s newest record brings her success. It may surpass even her distinguished track record these past few decades.

The leading singer of Hungarian music, renowned for her decades with Muszikás as well as her contributions to Deep Forest and the soundtrack for “The English Patient,” Márta Sebestyén’s first album for her own label may even surpass her impressive track record. This album, for listeners as this reviewer who have admired her work, so long into her career, impresses by its experimental quality and melodic range.

Balazs Dongo Sokolay (bagpipes, shepherd’s flutes, tárogotó, saxophone, and zither) and Matyas Bolya (“oriental fretless lute” and zither) accompany Sebestyén expertly. They provide a sound less based than her former bandmates in Hungarian folk and more reminiscent of Central Asian and medieval Christian influences. As this album adapts eight Hungarian songs from secular and sacred sources, it surprises by its ability to stay rooted in the past while eager to play with the present world music possibilities in a deft, inventive, and energetic fashion. Each song tells a story any listener may visualize, beyond the Magyar lyrics.

“Vision” starts harshly, as if blustering in from Siberian steppes, and then relaxes into a folksy tune; “Heritage” reminds us of the Central Asian origins of the Hungarian nation and stretches into the Far East with a delicate melody; “Flower Gatherers” may conjure up with its winding guitars a song from Pentangle.

“Driving Away Sorrow” wanders back to a hunter on the icy plateau with its overlays of throat-singing and deep chanting. “Invocation” offers a Eastern European touch with woodwinds and plucked, jazzier moodiness. “Valiant Knights” continues this tone. Fittingly for its title, horns massed usher in a dramatic introduction of a wall of Renaissance sound. Then, klezmer joins lute, into a danceable tango. This precedes a gentler interlude full of stringed plucking, and then a gentle Japanese rhythm, before it circles back across the Asian continent towards Hungary.

Two Christian tunes conclude this journey. “Good King Matthias” turns part-troubadour in its flutes, part-dance floor with frenetic strums. “Evening Prayer” blends the “Kyrie Eleison” and “Gloria” smoothly into an elegant hymn that any listener, no matter his or her creed, will admire.

This highly recommended album merits praise. Care shows in its rich production, its French-English liner notes, its attention to the controlled energy and its expression of the elegance of its sources. These features make this one of Márta Sebestyén’s best recordings to date, and that is a very impressive feat.

(I wrote this review except for the italicized paragraph for "" and their "RootsWorld Bulletin" site, the great online magazine and store for world music. Also posted to Amazon US 5-13-10.)

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