By TYRAN GRILLO
Thursday night’s performance at Bailey, the last of this year’s Cornell Concert Series, was proof that technology is far less predictable than those who use it. Predictable was the sheer excitement brought to the concert hall by “devil’s fiddler” Roby Lakatos and his all-Hungarian ensemble. How could one not be moved by the balance of incendiary virtuosity and cool programming? Unpredictable, however, was the muddy sound mix, which was prone to distortion and invariably favored certain instruments at the expense of others. Central to, and unique among, those instruments was the cimbalom, a concert hammered dulcimer rarely heard stateside in a live setting and played to captivating effect by one of its greatest living masters, Jenő Lisztes.
It was Lisztes, in fact, who scored the biggest hit of the night with his rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s evergreen “Flight of the Bumblebee,” improvising around it with such artful dexterity that it was like hearing it for the first time. With exception of the occasional solo, however, the cimbalom was lost under the weight of pianist Kálmán Cséki Jr. and bassist Lászlo “Csorosz” Lisztes, each miked so loudly that the dulcimer’s gentle edges were frayed beyond recognition. Over-amplification all around also magnified incidental sounds from Lakatos’s bow, often breaking the spell otherwise spun: Sobering reminders that what we were hearing was being processed, filtered and force-fed the sonic equivalent of a Five-Hour Energy drink. Neither music nor musicians needed any such enhancement, and the decision to rely on it seemed as much motivated by virtue of playing in such a large venue — instead of, for example, the restaurant in Brussels where, from 1986 to 1996, Lakatos’ talents drew collaborators and admirers (Sir Yehudi Menuhin among them) from far and wide — as by a need to balance sound levels to the musicians’ liking. Indeed, in light of their most recent live CD of the same music, which fares hardly better, it’s clear they were hearing things very differently on stage, surrounded as they were by monitor speakers fanned away from the audience.
Despite complications in presentation, the content was nonetheless compelling. Completing the picture for this, the ensemble’s inaugural U.S. performance, were two more Lászlos: Mr. Balogh on guitar and Mr. Bóni, who has worked with Lakatos for well over two decades, on second violin. The two violinists, understandably, displayed the most effortless synergy. Both soloed with finesse and ease, even if their styles diverged — Lakatos the jack-in-the-box ready to spring and Bóni the smooth motion of the crank turning in anticipation of its surprising reveal. Together, the band presented its current touring program, “La Passion” — an appropriate and multivalent title, to be sure, for emotive music performed with commitment.
As leader, Lakatos was often in the spotlight. There was so much traction in his often-aggressive bowing that at moments it was as if his hands were working of their own volition. Whether showing off his blurring pizzicato technique in the traditional “Duex Guitares” or pulsing through the chromatic drama of “Valse Triste” by Hungarian composer Ferenc Vecsey, Lakatos kept a level head. Lakatos also presented two original pieces. Both “New Alliance,” which began the concert, and “SK Paraphrase” followed the same formula, starting out with crosstalk from the violins before blending into Django Reinhardt antics that found Balogh in particularly high spirits. That the guitarist had started out on cimbalom before switching to guitar at age 12 was plain to see: His fingers danced with that same staccato approach. Other highlights included two Soviet-era pieces, one a waltz by film composer Isaak Osipovich Dunayevsky and the other a marching song (“Polyushka Polye”), and two tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Of those, the lush and vibrant “Oblivion” showed these musicians at their dynamic, lyrical best.
Conceptually speaking, Lakatos and friends are by no means singular in what they do. Similar projects, such as violinist Nigel Kennedy’s sadly one-off “East Meets East” with the Polish Kroke Band, have forayed into adventurous crossovers of classical, folk and jazz. What separates the Lakatos ensemble is the sterling fire they bring to even the most lambent moments. But in the end, no electricity is needed where already there is so much heat.