Hungarian Rhapsodist

Jenő Lisztes is the world’s leading exponent of the cimbalom. He speaks with arts writer Richard Betts ahead of his star turn in May’s Tall Tales concert.

One of the perks of writing about classical musicians is that you get to speak with artists who are at the absolute peak of their profession. People like Jenő Lisztes.

Lisztes plays the cimbalom, a form of hammered dulcimer that is the national instrument of Hungary. He began learning aged four, born into a family tradition that already involved his father, his father’s father, and musicians on his mother’s side too. That’s a lot of pressure, but Lisztes was up to the challenge, and he is now considered among the instrument’s greatest ever exponents.

So adept is Lisztes that the APO is having an instrument built and shipped from Budapest for him to use on 5 May, when he will appear in the New Zealand Herald Premier Series: Tall Tales both as a member of the orchestra in works by Kodály and John Adams, and as a featured soloist.

Q. Although you’re coming here to play classical music, many New Zealanders will have heard recordings of you playing Romany music with violinist Roby Lakatos.

I started playing with Roby Lakatos in 2006. I was in my second year at the Liszt Academy [Hungary’s top music university]; those were busy days, going to school and playing concerts. Roby also plays with other bands as a guest, and I play with other bands, it’s good.

Q. For many years the cimbalom was a folkloric instrument, but in the 20th century it began to appear in classical settings, and composers like Stravinsky started incorporating it into their work. How do you feel about classical composers writing for cimbalom? Do you think that they’re appropriating the instrument without understanding its cultural importance to Hungary? Or are you pleased it’s been discovered in that way?

I’m very happy. Hungary was a closed country [during the Communist period], and composers like Boulez and Kodály made it world famous, and also Bartók and Stravinsky. That’s good, especially now, because many people want to hire cimbalom players to play these pieces, so for us it’s great.

Q. With the APO, you’re playing in Kodály’s Háry János Suite and John Adams’s Scheherazade.2. Is it difficult to incorporate cimbalom with orchestra?

It can be. An orchestra is very loud and it can be difficult to find a balance. Sometimes I use amplification; it depends on the hall. But it’s not so common in a cimbalom player’s life to play with a symphony orchestra, so I enjoy that very much.

Q. There’s no concert standard cimbalom in New Zealand, and the APO has commissioned one especially for this concert. You helped find the maker.

His name is Ákos Nagy, and I think he’s the best cimbalom maker in the world. A cimbalom is not like a violin; newer is better. Three things are important in a good cimbalom: the quality of sound, the pedal system, and the stability – there’s a lot of pressure in the strings so it has to be strong to keep in tune.

Q. As well as performing with the orchestra, you’re playing a solo set during the concert. What can the audience expect?

When I play a solo piece, I usually play something like a rhapsody by Liszt, because people know it. I also improvise, which can be good, but I like to play something where people will know at least some parts. I’m also curious because I don’t know the audience in New Zealand. When I go to Italy or England, I’ve already played there many times, so I know what they will like, but in New Zealand, I just hope people enjoy it [laughs].

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