Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, after studying folk music across Central Europe, invited controversy by concluding that there is no indigenous Gypsy music, just Hungarian--or Romanian or Czech--folk music played in a Gypsy style.
The Lakatos Gypsy Folk Ensemble, a lively sextet from Budapest, seemed intent on proving Bartok's thesis when it played an evening of distinctively Gypsy-sounding music Thursday at the Hungarian Embassy.
Its program was a balance of classical "pops" arrangements--Jules Massenet's "Meditation" from "Thais," Aram Ilyich Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," and the like--and Hungarian pop ballads (sung with panache by Fabian Eniko). These were songs remembered fondly, and hummed along with nostalgically, by the mostly Hungarian-speaking audience. The Lakatos's performing style was seamlessly of a whole, the effortless summation of a unified tradition. Thus without pretense it could include clever bird call imitations in place of cadenzas. Its instrumentation--three violins, clarinet, cimbalom and bass--helped lay a foundation for an identifiably Gypsy sound.
There's a trend nowadays when dealing with sophisticated folk music. If you drain the kitsch out of folksy cafe songs maybe you'll reveal the art music within. The Lakatos instead reveled in the kitschy. Yet for all the syrupy passion outwardly displayed, there was little emotional kick: Although the playing certainly wasn't polished, it didn't sound spontaneous, either, and there was a sense of having played the same sets, with the same winks to the audience, once too often, self-consciously exporting a tradition.