Refreshing as an evening of unpretentious European country cooking, Muzsikas explained and performed the folk music of Hungary and Transylvania with understated charm and abundant finesse. Singer Marta Sebestyen may be exposed to a wider audience through her haunting work on "The English Patient" soundtrack, but that perf is but a smidgen of the unit's talents. Hungarian dance music would find its closest North American cousins in the fiddle music of rural Louisiana and Canada's Cape Breton, yet the balladry has a unique stillness and off-kilter cadence. Combined with the Hungarian instrumentation --- a cello-shaped stringed drum, an oversized cross between a mandolin and balalaika or a flute with only a mouthpiece and endhole --- the music has a continual briskness and uplifting spirit. Fiddlers Mihaly Sipos and Laszlo Porteleki are the cornerstones of the bulk of Muzsikas' collection of wedding songs, dance music and folk tales; many of their melody lines are performed in tandem, which builds the intensity and emotional resonance. Sebestyen is a subdued presence, always back from the microphone and gentle in her phrasing. Dancers Zoltan Farkas and Ildiko Toth, dressed in traditional garb, demonstrated invigorating steps associated with some of this music.
Daniel Hamar, who mostly plays the three-string bass, provided most of the explanations of the songs’ origins and lyrics with a charisma on par with Michael Doucet, leader of the Cajun band Beausoleil. He credited the work of composer Bela Bartok as crucial to introducing Hungarian melodies to the rest of the world. In the case of Muzsikas’ though, and this holds true for their recent Rykodisc release “Morning Star,” the closer to the source, the more bracing the experience.