JÁNOS SEBESTYÉN
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I created this site as a tribute to János Sebestyén, a musician of amazing versatility who has enriched my life and expanded my musical horizons for more than thirty years. Sebestyén is remembered in his native Hungary for his countless recitals and numerous radio and television broadcasts. In other parts of the world he is recognized for his many recordings.

I discovered his art for myself during the summer of 1979. I was thirteen and had recently found the score to Bach's Italian Concerto at my local library in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Wanting to hear this work, and having little to spend, I purchased his Bach recital on the Vox/Turnabout label. Despite the bargain price, I was initially disappointed by the woolly, jangling tone of the harpsichord. Being fairly certain I knew what a good harpsichord should sound like, it took time to get past the sound of this instrument. The music, however, was so engaging I could not stop listening. There was also a natural musicality in Sebestyén's playing that I found appealing - it just sounded right to me. I loved the intensity of his Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, the solemnity of the Toccata in C minor and the high spirits of the Italian Concerto. I knew I wanted to hear more from this artist and before long I had his Vox recordings of Portuguese music, old Hungarian dances and concertos by Monn, Albrechtsberger and Dittersdorf - unusual repertoire that further increased my interest in the harpsichord. I also wanted to learn something about Sebestyén himself, but information seemed impossible to find. Eventually I discovered Qualiton Imports in New York, and through them began to acquire his recordings for Hungaroton. While I had enjoyed many of the Vox recordings, these were of considerably higher quality and the album notes offered at least some biographical information. Late in the summer of 1983 his recording of concertos by Cimarosa and Seixas was released. This soon became a favorite, as it demonstrates many of the qualities I appreciate in his playing. A few months later I located his address in a reference book and wrote a letter. I was very excited when just after Christmas I received a reply. I decided then that I would attempt to collect all of Sebestyén's recordings.


The Bach recital on Vox/Turnabout, my first encounter with Sebestyén.

Cimarosa and Seixas on Hungaroton, one of Sebestyén's finest recordings.

Of his recordings, about half are on the Hungaroton label. These span most of his career, from 1958-2002. Many of the recordings for other labels were the result of a collaboration with two prolific record producers: Thomas Gallia and Paul Déry. Gallia was born in Budapest in 1921 and came from a prominent musical family; his grandfather, István Thomán, studied piano under Liszt and was later Bartók's teacher. His career began at the Hungarian Radio in 1947 and in 1951 he became chief engineer for MHV, the predecessor of Hungaroton. After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 he worked in Paris for Pathé Marconi then Disques Charlin. In 1961 he moved to Milan where he was studio director for the Angelicum label. A few years later, with Déry, he formed Sonart, an independent production company. Déry had been on the staff at the Hungarian Radio with Gallia. He was a professional singer and later worked as a musician in East Germany before accepting Gallia's offer to join him in Milan. Déry served as editor and producer for their recordings, while Gallia was the sound engineer. The majority of Sebestyén's work with them dates from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The recordings, made while Sebestyén was on tour in Italy, often had to be completed in one or two days. A number of organs in Milan, Rovigo and Brescia were utilized, while the harpsichord sessions took place at the Angelicum studio in Milan. There was no money for the rental of a better instrument, so the Neupert available in the studio had to suffice. Sebestyén's compensation was not particularly generous either - he received $150 for each of the Vox recordings, while some of the others were made gratis for friends. Despite these limitations, the sessions often resulted in performances of a spontaneous, concert-like quality and many of the reviews were positive. The LPs were published by a number of labels including Angelicum, CBS Italiana and Ariston in Italy, BAM in France, and Vox in the United States and England. Between them, Gallia and Déry produced more than two-thousand classical recordings. Déry passed away in 1992; Gallia in 1997. Sebestyén's last session with Gallia took place in January 1996 and included the Hasse and Bach/Vivaldi organ concertos published by Hungaroton.


Thomas Gallia and Paul Déry, with compatriot Tibor Kelemen, at work in the control room of the Angelicum studio, 1968.

The first LP of Bach toccatas for CBS Italiana, one of Sebestyén's many recordings made at the Angelicum studio.


Listen to János Sebestyén speak about his experiences making records in Italy with Thomas Gallia. This interview with author Allan Evans took place 23 May 1990 in New York.
Sebestyén's two LPs of Bach toccatas, produced by Gallia for CBS Italiana in 1968, received favorable notices from many Italian critics and helped establish his career there.

Through my conversations with Sebestyén, I came to learn that his recordings were, at least for him, only a small and not particularly important aspect of his career. He concentrated most of his energy on his concerts, which took him to more than twenty-five countries around the world. During the 1960s his harpsichord recitals were predominate, but by the late 1980s he returned almost exclusively to the organ and piano. Being a self-professed romantic, his playing style was more suited to these instruments. Tastes in harpsichord performance had also changed to a more historically-informed style and his colorful manner of playing was no longer in fashion. In 1990 he made a final harpsichord tour of northern Italy, performing Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Soler and Falla on a Sperrhake harpsichord that accompanied him from Hungary. He continued to concertize as organist and pianist, only occasionally returning to the harpsichord.

Like several other performers of his generation, Sebestyén did not actually set out to become a harpsichordist - it simply came about through circumstance. At the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music he studied composition, piano and organ, with the latter remaining as his preferred instrument. However, in Stalinist Hungary of the early 1950s there were few opportunities for organists. In 1957 he was asked to play the harpsichord part for a performance of Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante. This performance brought about a renewed interest in the instrument, which was unfamiliar to many in Hungary at that time. After this concert Sebestyén became known as a harpsichordist, and he endeavored to promote the instrument as a viable medium for more than just early music. He demonstrated this with his first solo harpsichord recording in 1963, performing, in addition to Bach, transcriptions of Prokofiev and Frank Martin, and a new work by Emil Petrovics. His harpsichord recitals often included his own transcriptions of piano compositions by contemporary composers such as Miklós Rózsa and Konstantin Iliev. Many of these transcriptions and a number of original 20th century harpsichord compositions were recorded by the Hungarian Radio. Some of Sebestyén's finest performances are among these recordings: two examples being János Decsényi's demanding Divertimento for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra from 1958 and the great Concert Champêtre by Poulenc. Further information on the harpsichord revival in Hungary can be found in Sebestyén's essay A Short History of Harpsichord Playing in Hungary.

One aspect of Sebestyén's art, known only to those who heard his concerts, was his gift for improvisation. Whether performing as pianist or organist, on the large romantic organ in Pécs or the tiny ancient organ in Sion, Sebestyén had the ability to exploit the resources of any instrument at his disposal in the style of his choice. His partners in improvisation included pianist Geoffrey Tozer, flutist István Matúz, soprano Laura Faragó and bassist Aladár Pege. Special mention, however, must be made of his collaboration with István Lantos. For more than twenty-five years, Sebestyén and Lantos performed together both compositions and improvisations for two pianos, piano four-hands and organ four-hands. In later years they often collaborated with tenor Ernő Tálas and flutist Zoltán Gyöngyössy. These three musicians, along with radio and television personality József P. Kovács, became Sebestyén's "musical team" during his last decade, always finding time to take part in regular performances in Budapest, Balatonlelle and Szeged. It was thanks to their devoted friendship that Sebestyén's was able to continue performing during his last years of declining health. Two improvisations with Sebestyén and Lantos can be heard at the website La Folia - A Musical Cathedral.


Balatonlelle concert, 2008.

Sebestyén's devoted musical collaborators: tenor Ernő Tálas, pianist and organist István Lantos and flutist Zoltán Gyöngyössy, 2009.


Live broadcast at the Hungarian Radio with Gábor Dombóvári, 2001.

Harpsichord lesson at the Academy of Music with
Mónika Kecskés, 2003.

Sebestyén's concert and recording activities were only one aspect of his career. He also established the first harpsichord class at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in 1970. He was professor until 2009 and his many successful students include Szilvia Elek, Zsuzsa Elekes, Péter Ella, Anikó Horváth, Desző Karasszon, Judit Péteri, Hédi Salánki, András Szepes, Miklós Spányi and Ágnes Várallyay. From 1950 he also worked for the Hungarian Radio in various capacities, including twenty-five years as senior music producer. For forty-five years he wrote and hosted several popular programs including Those Radio Years, The Diary of a Radio Reporter and Wings of Memories. These regular broadcasts began in 1962, covering all aspects of European musical life and history during the past century. While it may surprise those who know him only from his concerts or recordings, Sebestyén was at heart a radio man, and this was perhaps his first love and true calling. He also appeared on television, hosting the annual New Year's Concert from Vienna for thirty-five years, and during the 1990s, the series Zene-Óra, which featured performances by visiting musicians including György Sándor, Aldo Ceccato, Zuzana Růžičková and György Pauk.


Robert Tifft and János Sebestyén
on a walk in the Buda hills, 2001.
I admire much in Sebestyén's playing; he understood the architecture of music. With his sense of timing and command of line he could turn a seemingly simple piece, such as one of Bach's Little Preludes, into a work of significance. He was not a specialist, which is rare among performers today, but was at home in the entire keyboard repertoire. If you are looking for technical perfection in his playing, you will not always find it. Instead, you will find a relaxed and unmannered musicality that cuts to the heart of a composition, bringing it to life in a way that is both natural and convincing. Sebestyén is an artist I never tire of hearing.

Robert Tifft
Dallas, Texas

Special thanks to many friends for their contributions to this site:

Paul Gabler, Marco Papi, Dénes Csiky, Éva Györki, Lászlo Terdik, Ágnes Várallyay, Máté Hollós, Péter Herke, Judit Hidasi, Arnaud Nader, Éva Thomán Juhos, Judit Péteri, Angela Tosheva, Dorothy Armstrong, Richard Young, Zuzana Růžičková, Anikó Horváth, Zoltán Paul Jeney, Kate Wacz, Allan Evans, Ecaterina Botár, Sándor Mátyus and especially Paul Uhler and Ágnes Ivánffy for making my visits to Budapest possible.


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