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on 23 January 2014
Although Erkel had already achieved considerable success in his native Hungary with previous operas on patriotic historical themes, particularly 'Hunyadi László' of 1844, it was this 1861 work 'Bánk bán' that was to be adopted as the Hungarian national opera. Listening to this strongly-cast and well-performed recording of his full-blooded score from 2001 (this budget-priced reissue dates from 2011) one can easily understand why it was such a success. One can only assume that the language barrier has been behind this still popular work becoming well-known in Western Europe and beyond, as it really is - in my opinion - as impressive and as inspired a work as many operas that have been staples of the repertoire since the nineteenth century.

The idiom here reflects the dominance of Italian opera across the continent in the central years of the nineteenth century (think mid-period Verdi for a general idea of Erkel's approach and style) though - much like Glinka had done in Russia with 'A Life for the Tsar' or Moniuszko in Poland with 'Halka', for example, a decade or so earlier - Erkel frequently, though not exclusively, colours his the Italianate music with Hungarian melodies and rhythms to give the work a distinctive national flavour. Culturally important though that might have been at the time, such details might render the opera a mere historical curiosity were Erkel not such a fine composer per se - and on the basis of this work, he evidently was and one with an instinctive grasp of the theatre. The opera opens undemonstratively with a short and restrained prelude for orchestral and the curtain rises 'in media res' with the end of a conversation between two members of the Hungarian court but from then on the opera moves quite swiftly along with a strong sense of dramatic pace. Erkel has a pronounced melodic gift, which (whether in the Hungarian style or in a more generic Italianate manner) is manifest throughout the score in the recitatives as well as the defined musical numbers and an obvious talent for writing characterful ensembles: the duet between Bánk bán's wife Melinda and her would-be seducer (and ultimately her rapist) Otto in act one is a case in point as is the large-scale ensemble with chorus that concludes the same act. The final two acts are shorter but even more potent emotionally, with an impassioned and memorable duet for Bánk bán and Melinda in act two, closely followed by the dramatic scenes in which Bánk bán confronts and kills Queen Gertrúd, Otto's sister. There are some equally fine solo numbers too - the hero's eloquent aria at the start of that act is an obvious crowd-pleaser but there are some beautiful and strikingly imaginative scenes too such as Melinda's 'mad scene', the scoring of which includes prominent writing for viola d'amore, harp, cor anglais and cimbalon as well as introducing some haunting choral writing (this scene is perhaps the most obvious example of Erkel's command of his instrumental forces but the whole opera reveals him to be a masterly orchestrator, I should add).

The recording was made for a film version of the opera and is, as I have noted, strongly cast. Attila Kiss B., a dramatic tenor with a fine voice, provides an ardent portrayal of the title role and Attila Reti is convincingly devious as the trouble-making knight, Biberach, upon whose Iago-like machinations hinge many of the twists and turns that propel the drama to its tragic denouement. Andrea Rost is touching as Bánk bán's slandered wife, Melinda - her entreaty to her husband to spare their son from his rage in act two is one of the highlights of the score. Eva Marton sings the role of Queen Gertrúd - perhaps her voice has lost a little of the bloom it had in her youth but her musicianship and artistry make hers a commanding performance. Under Tamás Pál's baton the pace is kept moving forward without ever feeling hurried and one feels that the stage is not far away from all the artists here, which adds to the vividness of the performance as a whole (the opera remains a regular feature at the Hungarian State Opera). Although I have occasionally seen this set described as a live recording, the booklet of the original Teldec release (which is the issue I own) states that it is a studio recording from 2001 , an impression which the excellent sound quality and slightly forward placing of the voices reinforces as well as the fact that there is no indication that the singers move from the microphones and no extraneous noise.

This opera made an immediate impression on me as soon as I listened to it and repeated hearings have served only to reconfirm that this is music of high quality. It's good to see it has been re-issued as a budget-priced Warner set. The original Teldec release* contains a handsome booklet with copious notes, photographs (presumably from the film version) and the full libretto in four languages: I've tried in vain to confirm whether or not this re-issue contains a libretto - there is nothing I can find online to indicate that it does and a search of the Warner Classics website draws a complete blank; based on my experiences of these Warner budget reissues I am inclined to think it doesn't. Frustrating though that is for anyone who buys this re-release, I would still strongly urge anyone interested in opera from the Romantic period to take the opportunity to snap up this recording while it still remains in the catalogues - it really is that good, musically and artistically.

Highly recommended.


Bank Ben (Pal, Kiss B, Marton, Rost, Honved Male Chorus)
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on 12 May 2015
At the age of 68 I have at last 'found' Erkel. Should have investigated years ago. A contemporary of Liszt who embarked on a career as a pianist but decided he could not compete with the other Ferenc so turned to opera. Some liken his music to Verdi but it also has a dash of Kodaly and Lehar. Yes I know they came later. Lots of tunes. Lots of paprika. You gotta find Erkel before you die.
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