A name often appeared on exotic harpsichord recordings. This vivid spirit somehow unscrambled works sounding vague in the hands of others.
Before embarking to Hungary in 1983 to find Irén Marik’s brother and any remaining traces of her life there, I was advised to call on János Sebestyén, the artist behind these performances. In a very formal English, he invited me over. After spending two weeks in Vienna for research, sick of its decadent clinging to a thoroughly dead past glory, stung by nasty sneers torpedoed my way from elderly passersby who recognized a non-Aryan who got away from them, fed up with their dull food (relieved only by a late discovery of a Syrian family place making killer okra stew on pilaf rice), it came as a great relied to catch a train to Communist Hungary!
Right past the border lay Sopron, a town where Liszt spent part of his youth. Wandering thru its narrow medieval streets at night I dreamed of making some telepathic connection with Liszt’s essence and soon noticed a church. Inside, an organist was playing Liszt’s own Weinen Klagen
variations, probably on the very first instrument he played as a young boy.
The next day I hitched over to a lake in Fertőrákos, not far from where Haydn lived on his patron nobleman’s estate as his music servant, and met four younger East Germans who were excited to meet their first American, eagerly asking about Bruce Springsteen. Climbing up a hill facing Austria, one muttered “Breathe it in! It’s the air of Freedom!”
János arranged for me to stay with a friend who had an apartment in the Buda side of the Danube. Juditka, close to eighty, spoke excellent English and was a Gershwin and Ellington fanatic. All the rigidity of the Viennese melted away here. János arrived in his snazzy East-bloc car and took me uphill to an apartment that had been his family’s since the end of the War, with parts of it allotted to others by the State. His archives flowed outside cabinets and made a knee high sea on the floor. Somewhere in the paperwork was his bed and a nook for his elderly mother tucked between the pages. His harpsichord was relatively undisturbed.
János had to flee Budapest with his parents when the Second World War broke out, taking refuge in Sweden, able to study and encounter his first Swedish blondes. They returned to a wrecked nation after the war, only to have the Soviets occupying and surpassing the Nazis with their rape and pillage.
János’ social life was undisturbed by any politics. He would have been the envy of any diplomat: in fact many of his friends were of this ilk. All musicians flocked to him and Hungarians heard decades of monthly radio broadcasts examining the past.
Helping me find Marik’s brother Miklós, who was a surgeon, he suggested we visit Dr. Péter Veghély, a retired doctor who vampiresquely arose at midnight to start his research and received guests until dawn.
The house was eery in that the doctor had Picasso and Matisse canvases on his walls, somehow permitted and not confiscated by the authorities. They both suggested I visit Antal Molnár at once, then ninety three years old. I was lucky to meet him for he died soon after. A violist, he played in the Waldbauer-Kerpély Quartet, a name hardly recalled except for their having introduced Bartók’s first two string quartets. He also was on stage when Debussy came to Budapest in 1910 for a recital; they played his quartet and the composer gave piano solos. Even more remarkable, Molnár gingerly neared an overburdened shelf, removing a volume of Hungarian folk songs, singing a few, and mentioning the days when he, Bartók and Kodály together first collected them in the early 1910s.
János’ vast and infallible memory covered a century of music-makers, several centuries of composers, and he poured out his knowledge on the radio as well, selecting the program’s day and recreating in sound the historic and cultural events taking place in and around Hungary so long ago. Doing so was a subtle affront to their imposed Soviet regime, keeping the truth alive by cloaking it in the facade of Nostalgia. One project he notably assisted was in the retrieval and restoration of Bartók’s piano playing on the radio, recorded by a music store onto x-ray plates.
Why did he choose the harpsichord? Originally it was the organ he desired, but when the Soviets clamped down in the 1940s the organ was placed off-limits for its religious connotations. He became Hungary’s first harpsichordist and when the pressure ebbed, he resumed organ recitals, often coming to play on Baroque consoles in Italy’s Marche region, smitten by the Venetian craftsmen who journeyed down the Adriatic in the 1600s and 1700s to create treasures for eager churches.
Our meetings in Sant’Elpidio a Mare in the Marche came after the regime change, when travel was smoother. No one was as informed and connected as János. Always in the company of a lovely lady traveling along, he was obsessed with railroads, waiting with timetable in hand to view a passing express, his Budapest home filled with swiped placards and signs taken out of corridors and stations.
Learning of his death a few days ago, a diplomat friend recalled: “I met him once or twice in Budapest in 1994 — went to his apartment. Remember climbing up the stairs. I found out later he developed a huge crush on the woman I brought with me and pursued her avidly after I had left.”
János had a rare grasp of history, style, and was an enlightened musician, teacher, and radio broadcaster who celebrated and enjoyed culture, scholarship, life, love, and friendship in the best possible way throughout all good and bad times.