Palya Bea Quintet, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London

27. 7. 2008 | Rubriky: Articles,Live reviews

[by Ken Hunt, London] “There’s a lot of dancing in her music,” I say to the Hungarian dancer sitting next to me when the concert finishes. My observation about the performance has nothing to do with Beáta Palya as a dancer, little to do with her swaying or rockin’ in rhythm as she sings and everything to do with the way she sings. In a manner of speaking, Bea Palya sings from the haunches and the hips an awful lot. And what and how she sings is exceptional. The music she makes is Hungarian folk-crossed jazz or Hungarian jazz-crossed folk with other elements stirred in – chanson, for example, befitting her role in Tony Gatlif’s film Transylvania in which she plays the part of the cabaret chanteuse – that’s chantoozie in American-English.

The Palya Bea Quintet set at the Linbury Studio Theatre drew largely from her Adieu Les Complexes album. (Or inverted to English usage the Bea Palya Quintet.) Four of her seven accompanists on the album were on the stage with her at the Royal Opera House – they being András Dés (kit drums and percussion), Balázs Szokolay Dongó (soprano and sopranino sax, kavals and bagpipes), Miklós Lukács (cimbalom) and Csaba Novák (double-bass).

The concert itself was a blank canvas because Adieu Les Complexes was so new, even in Hungary, for the compositions to be unknown quantities. It was the first of two performances that members of the band did for the ‘Voices Across The World’ concert season. This one with its post-concert ‘Meet the Artist’ session – Palya and Peter Mills – was followed the next afternoon with a live soundtrack (“new music created and performed live”) session for writer-director Zoltán Fábri’s Körhinta (1956). The film’s title means ‘roundabout’ – as in magic (for those of a certain age) or A bűvös körhinta (for those who speak Hungarian) – or ‘merry-go-round’.

The Quintet opened with Adieu Les Complexes’ opening track – Hold (‘Moon’). In live performance its arrangement serves to introduce the instrumentalists sequentially. Hold is a wonderful vehicle for cimbalom in its combination role, much like piano, as melody and percussion instrument. At one stage Lukács took the ends of his two strikers and rubbed them on the strings to create some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fleeting yet telling sonic variations. The magic is so often a combination of the visual and the musical in live performance. Clearly the night was unlikely to be a night of album replication. Hoppá became an audience participation song in ways that built on and outstripped the studio version with her cuing the audience to interject “Hoppá!”

Over the course of the set, she rarely left the new, non-Adieu Les Complexes repertoire. When she did it was spellbinding too. The Quintet delivered what might be called a mini-suite lifted from her Sándor Weöres-inspired album Psyché (2005). It consisted of Akrostichon, Minutes volantes III and Egy lovász fihoz. The last segment included a rip-roaring cimbalom solo. While the literary qualities of Weöres’ words about, she announced, the “life of a Hungarian woman”, were lost on me – his pieces appear in any number of Hungarian folk acts’ repertoire – the musicianship could not fail to deliver.

It was a case of trusting to feeling and instinct even though the literal truth soared and roared over one’s head. (As she announced in English, when introducing to Sometimes I’m Happy, “Emotion is international.”) Physically, she used her hands to chop and cut the air as she sang the Psyché song suite. And, after all, musical theatre at a venue such as the Royal Opera House is hardly going to go amiss. Like much of her performance the suite switched tempo and mood – soft and gentle to full-throated – with turn-on-a-forint timing and dexterity. The spaces in the suite’s arrangement with its telling ‘unsounded notes’ – rather like a khali or ’empty note’ in Hindustani tabla playing – and instrumental dropouts made for a remarkable ensemble performance. In a similar vein the bagpipe-driven Észoztó nagy szájhód (‘Big Mouth’) ended on an unplayed final note.

Her osmotic retelling of Lover Man started its journey as a Transylvanian folk melody before emerging as folk-jazz. She explained this in the Q&A talk and it was a light-bulb moment that good interviews achieve. It was one of those ‘Now I understand’ illuminations. Áll a kapun (‘My Prince Will Come?’) “about getting a husband – or not” began laconic and barely off lachrymose before hitting higher emotional registers. The Linbury Studio Theatre was one of those sorts of concert. Even the only piece that I had known beforehand, Pey-Dabadi – it’s only onomatopoeia but we like it – from her 2003 Ágról-ágra/Tradition in motion album was transformed. Its melding of Roma vocal rhythmicality in a ‘half-remembered’ Indian bols or rhythmic syllable sense was unerringly expressive and totally impressive. Put it this way: it was like a structure waiting to pounce. A remarkable concert and entrée into a remarkable album: Adieu Les Complexes. The Bea Palya Quintet delivered one of my concert highlights for 2008.

Further listening: Adieu Les Complexes Naive Sony/BMG (Hungary) 88697323112 (2008)

An interview (2007) in the Czech part of this website

Further information in Hungarian and English:

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