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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Ferenc ERKEL (1810-1893)
Bánk Bán (1860)
Kolos Kováts: The King of Hungary
Eva Marton: The Queen
Dénes Gulyás: Ottó, Prince of Meran
Attila Kiss: Bánk Bán, Palatine of Hungary
Andrea Rost: his wife
Lajos Miller: Tiborc, a peasant
Sándor Sólyom-Nágy: Petur Bán, The Lord of Bihar
Attils Réti: Biberach, knight-adventurer
Bence Asztalos: Sólom Mester
Honvéd Men’s Chorus; Hungarian National Chorus
Orchestra of the Hungarian Millennium/Támás Pál
Rec. 13-19 March 2001, Phoenix Studio, Budapest
WARNER MUSIC HUNGARY 0927 44606 2 [2CDs: 51.56+69.33]

 

During the 19th century national styles took on an increasing significance in opera. Historical subjects, peasant dances and folk tunes were all means of conveying a distinctive attitude. In Hungary Ferenc Erkel became a leading composer in this respect. He made his reputation by 1840, largely thanks to the immediate success in Pest of his opera Bátoria Maria. This encouraged him to concentrate his career on music for the stage, and he confirmed his position in national cultural life with Hunyadi László (Pest, 1844), of which Franz Liszt became a particular admirer.

As the years passed, so Erkel developed his skills in setting Hungarian texts musically. For example, his flexible treatment of recitative and arioso remains as fresh for today’s listener as it must have been for his contemporaries. Like so many opera composers, he continually searched for suitable librettos, in an effort to create what he described as a ‘people’s theatre’, with dance and vocal numbers making a direct impact.

His best known opera, however, is darker and tragic in tone. This is Bánk Bán, first performed at Pest in 1861. It was heard in London only seven years later. The nationalist-historical subject invites this approach: the 13th century Hungarian revolt against a ruling foreign court. This was of course a potent point of reference in the context of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the 1860s. Based on a well-known play by Jószef Katona. The opera’s libretto was completed before 1851 by Béni Egressy (we know this because he died that year), and Erkel then worked at the project through the next decade.

Erkel’s music stands up well to the test of time. Melodically rich and rhythmically vital, it also shows the way that his confidence as an opera composer had brought assurance in the use of ensembles and in characterisation. The latter in particular is a strength that is only achieved by the most talented composers, and Erkel certainly emerges in that category, even though his operas have not secured a place in the international repertory.

Furthermore, the orchestral writing is immensely characterful and assured, whether dominating the scene as in the various attractive dance numbers, or in helping create the atmosphere surrounding the drama or the characterisation of individuals.

While the drama emerges as rather far-fetched, there is a certain intensity and dramatic flow that results from Erkel’s music. The style is not necessarily national all the time, and the influence of Verdi seems to be present in both the musical organisation and the response to dramatic situation. As a man of the theatre Erkel would have known that masters works well.

With good sound captured in the reliable Phoenix Studio acoustic, this Hungarian performance from 2001, linked to a film project, does justice to Erkel’s vision. In any case it is hardly likely that another will come along soon and displace it. It is certainly an improvement on its Hungaroton predecessor, which was only fitfully available on the international market.

A strength of the performance is the conducting of Tamás Pál, who keeps the music moving along and has an excellent understanding of the ebb and flow of operatic drama. Among the native cast, Eva Marton is the singer who has made the most famous name for herself, though in truth she is probably past her vocal best now. She sings with full commitment and beautifully controlled tone, while as her husband the King, Kolos Kováts is in fine voice too. Atilla Kiss makes a striking impression in the title role of Bánk Bán, the Viceroy of Hungary around whom the drama rotates, and the lesser roles are all ably taken.

The documentation is full and well produced, though the employment of an English editor, or at least proof-reader, would surely have eradicated the frustrating occasional mistakes of translation, extending to the name of the singer in the title role.

 

Terry Barfoot



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