Bartok: An Evening in the Village (CD review)

The Music of Bela Bartok. Jake Schepps, banjo; with string band. Mighty Fine Records 1003.

The term "classical bluegrass" never quite meant what it does on this album, An Evening in the Village: The Music of Bela Bartok. Banjo exponent extraordinaire Jake Schepps and eight of his string-band friends on violin, mandolin, guitar, cello, and bass play the music of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1946) as you've probably never heard it before. And the surprising thing is, at least some of it works.

The idea is that since Bartok found many of his melodies in traditional Hungarian, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk tunes, why not adapt them for traditional American folk instruments. However, while it's a novel idea, it does have it limitations. I mean, why not just play the music on traditional European folk instruments instead of trying to accommodate them to an American idiom? Yet, where would the fun be in that?

In any case, the result of all this fussing about with the music of different cultures winds up something more American-sounding than middle European, which is doubtless the effect Schepps had in mind. He's playing largely for an American audience, after all, at the same time he'd like to appeal to classical-music fans of any country, so the fusion makes sense from a purely commercial standpoint.

The opening track, "An Evening in the Village," based on Bartok's Hungarian Sketches, sets the tone with its clearly bluegrass roots and vaguely foreign overtones. Will the fruits of this mix satisfy both camps? Who knows. Surely, it is fascinating music and well played, so there is no discounting those qualities.

Some of the numbers sound Western, some of them pure bluegrass, some of them pure blues, some of them jazzy, some of them conventional, some of them curious, some of them sprightly, some of them melancholy, some of them gypsy-like, some wistful, some melancholy, some joyous, some romantic, some modern. There is without question a little of everything here for everyone, yet it boils down to one's appreciation for traditional American acoustic music because no matter what the melodies or arrangements involved, that's how it's going to come off to most ears.

Recorded in Nashville and Colorado between April and November of 2010, the sound appears fairly close up, yet without any stridency or clamor. Instead, if anything, the strings seem a little too smooth, even soft, for the relative distance at which the engineers miked them. The transient response is quick, though, and plucked notes have a strong, well-defined impact. The bass is especially prominent, giving the overall sound a slightly heavy feeling, set within a somewhat resonant acoustic.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa