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Ferenc ERKEL (1813-1869)
Hunyadi László (1844) [143.53]
Dániel Pataky (tenor) - King László V; Krisztián Cser (baritone) - Ulrik Cillei; Beatrix Fodor (soprano) - Erzsébet Szilágyi; Attila Fekete (tenor) - László; Gabrielle Balga (soprano) - Mátyás; Gabor Bretz (bass) - Miklós Gara; Erika Miklosa (soprano) - Mária; András Kaldi Kiss (baritone) - Rozgonyi; Katalin Patonai (soprano) - Maid; Karoly Fekete (tenor) - Servant;
Honvád Male Choir
Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra/Domonkos Héja
rec. Erkel Theatre, Budapest, 29 August – 2 September 2012
Text available at the Brilliant Classics website in Hungarian and English translation
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94869 [65.57 + 77.56]

I suppose we can assume that Erkel has finally arrived in the international repertory outside Hungary now that we have no fewer than two recordings of Hunyadi László.
 
This issue advertises itself as the ‘original version’ of the score published in 2006. That issued on Hungaroton LPs (and subsequent CDs) in the 1980s made similar claims. The cast-list for that earlier recording also includes credits for an additional character in the shape of Mihály Szilágyi — sung by no less an artist than Jószef Gregor — and Attila Fülöp doubling the roles of ‘Lieutenant’ and ‘Nobleman’. Both of these have gone missing here to be substituted by ‘Maid’ and ‘Servant’. The editions of the score employed on the two recordings therefore differ in certain respects. The booklet notes that the first scene of Act Three is omitted “in keeping with a practice that developed in Erkel’s time and under his direction”. This might explain the disappearance of the characters noted in the previous sentence. The old Hungaroton set extended to three CDs, but most listeners will be content with what we are given here.
 
The opera itself is a thoroughly workmanlike piece in the style of historical grand opera. Meyerbeer and Halévy appear to be the main stylistic influences rather than Italian models. In fact, Erkel’s orchestration is less effective than Meyerbeer’s sometimes startling experimental devices. The action is driven along in a series of ensembles often featuring the chorus in a leading role, with only half a dozen arias throughout the score. There are also substantial passages for the orchestra, including a very long overture, a four-minute Hungarian dance, a Funeral March and an entr’acte of nearly five minutes which precedes the Fourth Act.
 
The plot itself, a rather convoluted tale of political intrigue and revenge intermingled with only limited lyrical and romantic episodes, forms a not altogether satisfactory unit. It is however interesting to note that Erkel anticipates Verdi’s Il trovatore in assigning subtitles to each of the Acts – Cillei’s death, The King’s oath, Intrigue and The scaffold – which illustrate the principal interest in each passage. László’s aria (CD 1, track 9) features a substantial passage for the harp which perhaps reflects the influence of Donizetti.
 
The new set, despite being recorded in a theatre, appears to be a studio production – at any rate there is a very peculiar effect during CD 1, track 4 where László reads out a letter from Cillei. His voice is faded out and that of Cillei is superimposed, in a manner more reminiscent of film technique than live stage presentation. The singing is highly creditable to the younger generation of Hungarian singers. The only weak link in the cast is the rather thin-toned Beatrix Fodor, who clearly finds the high-ranging coloratura in her first aria (CD 1, track 13) rather a strain on her resources … and at several points later on. Attila Fekete on the other hand is impressively heroic in the title role. Dániel Pataky as the vacillating King — confusingly also named László in the cast listing, although as a Habsburg his real name would have been Ladislaus — is, if anything, too strong in tone although he is nicely lyrical in his aria (CD 2, track 11). Mention should also be made of the firmly-voiced Gábor Bretz who is highly impressive in his rabble-rousing address (CD 2, track 6) and makes his way confidently around his coloratura including some resonant bottom notes. Gabriella Balga (in a trouser role) and Erika Miklósa manage their almost soubrette-like tones well.
 
For those unfamiliar with mediaeval Hungarian history, a series of brief biographies of the principal characters is also provided. The male chorus is well-balanced, with confidently delivered tenor lines in the correct proportion. The orchestra is lively and accurate with some particularly well-turned string playing in the many passages of excited figuration. Domonkos Héja clearly loves the score and obtains affectionate phrasing from his forces, while building up plenty of exciting climaxes. There is even one passage in the Funeral March (CD 2, track 19, 1.53) which seems briefly to anticipate Wagner, although the final bars are perfunctory in the extreme.
 
The old Hungaroton issue of the opera seems to have disappeared from current listings on Archiv, but second-hand copies will presumably be available (Amazon currently lists copies from around £25). It has to be observed that in that older performance we were provided with the very best in Hungarian singers of that generation in a recording that still sounds very fine. However those who wish to explore the music of Erkel further have in this issue an inexpensive way of doing so, at around a quarter of the price. The performance, if not featuring such starry names as the Hungaroton set, is by no means negligible.
 
In the past I have complained about the habit of Brilliant Classics’ failure to provide texts for obscure works. I am pleased to see from recent issues that my remarks appear to have struck a responsive chord. The synopsis in the booklet is not cued, but we are given an extensive essay on the origins of the work as well as the text being available online. In order to fit the score onto two CDs, apart from the cut scene already noted, the break is made after the first scene of Act Two, which makes perfect sense. Listeners interested in early romantic opera should certainly take the opportunity to investigate this score. It is much more than just a piece of Hungarian patriotism.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey