The Bartok Album
Classical composers have long drawn inspiration, if not directly filching material, from the ragged ranks of the presumably "lower" culture of folk music. One of the most famous examples in this century was Bela Bartok, who so loved what he heard in Hungarian folk music that he paid due respects by taking to the hills for study, recording, amateur ethnomusicology, cataloguing, and, not incidentally, administering a shot in the arm of his own creative life.
In a fascinating project that freely crosses the border between "high" and "low" musical culture, the group known as Muzsikas has created the humbly titled album, The Bartok Album (Hannibal 1439; 62:43), one of the finest albums of the year, of whatever genre.
And genre is a rubbery thing here, to its credit. The group-amended by commanding guest artists like vocalist Marta Sebestyan and the Romanian-born violinist Alexander Balanescu-has literally traced Bartok's steps, finding the original folk tunes which inspired him and including scratchy-toned field recordings of the folk material. Willfully mixing up the realms of the concert hall and the backwoods, they play folk music and Bartok pieces, in a naturally interwoven continuum. All in all, the album conveys both the rugged-and also cerebral-power of the Hungarian folk tradition, and a renewed, refreshed admiration for one of the century's great "art music" composers, he of dirty fingernails and lofty ideals. Bartok would, no doubt, be impressed.