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 almost forty years. Sebestyén is remembered in his native Hungary for his numerous recitals and countless radio and television broadcasts. In other parts of the world he is recognized for his many recordings.

I discovered his art for myself on a fortuitous Friday the 13th in July 1979. I was thirteen years old and had recently found the score of Bach's Italian Concerto at my local library in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Eager to hear this work but with little to spend – only the week before having purchased Gustav Leonhardt's traversal of the Brandenburg Concertos – my only option was Sebestyén's Bach recital on the budget Vox/Turnabout label. Despite the bargain price, I was initially disappointed by the woolly, jangling tone of the harpsichord. I already had recordings by Igor Kipnis, Kenneth Cooper and Leonhardt, so I was fairly certain I knew what a good harpsichord should sound like. The music itself, however, was so engaging I could not stop listening, and there was a natural musicality in Sebestyén's playing I found appealing – it simply 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 wanted to hear more from this artist and searched for his other Vox recordings. While the instruments played were admittedly inferior and the performances often under-rehearsed, these recordings nevertheless opened up an entire world of unfamiliar repertoire spanning the Polish renaissance through the organ works of Liszt. I also wanted to learn about Sebestyén himself, but other than the brief biography published with the Liszt albums, information seemed impossible to find. Eventually I discovered Qualiton Imports in New York and began to acquire his Hungaroton recordings. In every respect, these were of substantially higher quality than those published by Vox, and the album notes offered further biographical clues. Late in the summer of 1983 his recording of concertos by Cimarosa and Seixas was released. This became an immediate favorite, clearly demonstrating the many qualities I appreciate in his playing. A few months later, while visiting a university library, I discovered in a reference book his Budapest address – Fillér utca 48. I wrote a letter and 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 for Vox/Turnabout, my first encounter with Sebestyén.

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

Haydn and Handel for Angelicum, Sebestyén's first record published in Italy.

About half of his recordings were made in Hungary for the state label Hungaroton. The other half, made primarily in Italy, were the result of a collaboration with two prolific record producers: Thomas Gallia and Paul Déry. Both men were employed by the Hungarian Radio when Sebestyén began work there in 1950, and both became expatriates after the 1956 revolution. Gallia was born in Budapest to a prominent musical family – his grandfather, István Thomán, studied piano under Liszt and was later Bartók's teacher. He studied both music and engineering and his career began at the Hungarian Radio in 1947. 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. Déry was born in Szeged. He was a member of the Honvéd Arts Ensemble and after 1956 worked as an opera singer in East Germany. In the 1960s their paths crossed in Milan. Gallia became director of the Angelicum Studio in 1961 and Déry began work as a copyist for the music publisher Ricordi in 1965. It was during this time that Gallia established Sonart, his own freelance recording business, and Déry soon partnered with him in this venture.


Thomas Gallia.

Paul Déry.

Riccardo Allorto invited Sebestyén for a concert with the Angelicum Chamber Orchestra in 1963. Organ concertos by Haydn and Handel were performed and these were also recorded by Gallia for the Angelicum label. This became Sebestyén's first recording published outside of Hungary. Gallia traveled to New York in 1967 to establish a working relationship with George Mendelssohn, the Hungarian émigré who founded the Vox label in 1945. Mendelssohn accepted Gallia's offer to produce recordings through Sonart, and upon the recommendations of Gallia and composer Miklós Rózsa, Sebestyén was engaged as soloist. Mendelssohn offered Sebestyén an exclusive contract, but Gallia, already familiar with Mendelssohn's legendary frugality, felt this would limit both their opportunities and cautioned him against accepting the offer. Sebestyén's first marathon recording session for Gallia took place in late February and early March 1968 and resulted in eight LPs: four for Vox and four to be licensed by Sonart. Sessions continued in the summer and the following year. Déry initially worked as producer and editor but later becoming proficient with the technical aspects as well. His gentle and patient nature balanced Gallia's often tempestuous personality. All these recordings, made while Sebestyén was on tour in Italy, were rushed and had to be completed in one or two days. Organs in Milan, Rovigo, and Brescia were utilized, while the harpsichord sessions took place at the Angelicum Studio. Mendelssohn provided no money for preparations, rehearsals, or the rental of a better instrument, so the studio's Neupert had to suffice. Sebestyén's compensation was not particularly generous either, receiving approximately $150 for each Vox recording. Mendelssohn did, however, later assist him financially in acquiring his own harpsichord. The recordings published by other labels were often made gratis out of friendship to Gallia. Despite these limitations, the sessions often resulted in performances of a spontaneous, concert-like quality and the press was surprisingly positive. The Vox recordings received worldwide distribution while the others were published in Italy by Angelicum, CBS and Ariston, and in France by BAM. These initial efforts to establish Sonart proved successful and by the 1970s Gallia and Déry were producing close to one hundred recordings each year for many of the leading early music artists and labels. Their collaborations with Sebestyén continued into the 1990s. Déry died in 1992, followed by Gallia five years later.


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 many recordings Sebestyén made at the Angelicum Studio.


Listen to Sebestyén discuss his experiences making records in Italy. This excerpt from an interview with music historian Allan Evans was recorded in New York on 23 May 1990.
Sebestyén's first recording of Bach toccatas, produced by Sonart for CBS Italiana in 1968, received favorable notices from many critics and helped establish his career in Italy.

Through my conversations with Sebestyén, I learned 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. His close friendship with many of the music loving diplomats serving in Budapest resulted in invitations from throughout Europe and Asia. Sebestyén 's live performances were markedly different from his recordings. It was for an audience that he played with almost fearless abandon. During the 1960s his harpsichord recitals were predominate, but by the late 1980s he devoted himself primarily to the organ and piano. Being a self-professed romantic, his playing style was better 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. He made a final harpsichord tour of northern Italy in 1990, performing Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Soler and Falla on a Sperrhake harpsichord in tow from Budapest. He continued to concertize as organist and pianist, occasionally returning to the harpsichord for concerts and radio broadcasts in Hungary.

Like several performers from 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 his preferred instrument. However, in Stalinist Hungary of the early 1950 there were few opportunities for organists. In 1957 he was asked to play the harpsichord part in 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. Sebestyén became known as a harpsichordist after this concert, 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 Bach, transcriptions of piano music by 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. The Hungarian Radio recorded many of these transcriptions and a number of original 20th century harpsichord compositions. Some of Sebestyén's finest performances are among these recordings.

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 small ancient organ in Sion, he 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 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 go-to team during his last decade, always finding time to take part in his regular performances in Budapest, Balatonlelle and Szeged. It was thanks to their devoted friendship that he was able to continue performing during his last years of declining health.


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 two aspects of his career. In 1970 he established the first harpsichord class at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music. 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 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 that included Those Radio Years, The Diary of a Radio Reporter, and Wings of Memories. These regular broadcasts began in 1962, documenting all aspects of music 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, perhaps, was his first love. He also appeared regularly on Hungarian television, famously hosting the annual New Year's Concert from Vienna for thirty-five years, as well as the series Zene-Óra, featuring performances by musician friends including György Sándor, Aldo Ceccato, Zuzana Růžičková and György Pauk.


Robert Tifft and János Sebestyén
on a walk in the Buda hills, 2001.
János Sebestyén understood the architecture of music. He made the complicated comprehensible, and with his timing and command of line could turn a simple Bach prelude into a work of significance. He played in a highly rhetorical manner and for me his interpretations always managed to tell a story. When listening to his records I clearly sensed the presence of a very real, even fallible, musician and human being. Accustomed to the relentless perfection of most recordings, this was both startling and unexpected, and yet this very aspect of his performances encouraged me to listen even more carefully. Sebestyén never really understood why I enjoyed his recordings – especially those made in Italy. He often joked there was something wrong with my hearing, but in the end I believe he was grateful that I listened.

Robert Tifft
Dallas, Texas

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

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


Further information can be found on the pages A Short History of Harpsichord Playing in Hungary, Thomas Gallia and The Angelicum in Milan.

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