Erkel Bánk bán

A vital and enjoyable work that has a special place in the hearts of Hungarians

Author: 
John Warrack

Erkel Bánk bán

  • Bánk bán

Bánk bán has had two previous recordings, from Qualiton in 1962 and from Hungaroton in 1968, the second a vigorous performance under János Ferencsik with Jozsef Simándy in the title-role (Bánk is the hero’s name; a bán is a provincial governor). This record, made for a recent film, follows its predecessors in using the 1939 revision of a work which was a triumph from its first performance in 1861. It has an honourable position as the first Hungarian national opera of any merit, and has remained in Hungarian currency.The plot, it has to be said, is fairly crude, and turns on the resistance of loyal Hungarians to the 13th-century German Queen Gertrud, ruling the country in King Endre’s absence at war. Her brother Otto is helped to assault Bánk’s loyal wife Melinda by means of what would now be called a date-rape drug, to her horror when she realises what has happened and to Bánk’s desperate rage. He joins the rebels, and as he confronts the Queen she tries to stab him but is herself killed. The loyal peasant Tiborc escapes with Melinda, but she is by now out of her mind and drowns herself and her child. Bánk surrenders to the returning King, who, now avenged, allows him to go free.There was plenty here for Erkel. The national rivalries allow him to contrast music for Gertrud and Otto owing much to German example with material marked by Hungarian elements for Bánk and his compatriots, sometimes combining the two for dramatic effect. So Eva Marton has ample opportunity as Gertrud to deliver herself of some splendidly vehement declamatory music, especially in the climactic scene when she comes face to face with Bánk. He is skilfully contrasted with the evil Otto; both are tenors, but Dénes Gulyás makes the most of Otto’s wheedling, treacherous lines in contrast to the more robust though lyrical manner provided for Attila Kiss B as Bánk, the former trying to seduce Melinda with false tenderness, the latter outraged and temporarily off balance but still ardent.The Hungarian characteristics identifying him and Melinda include not only verbunkos rhythms and the Hungarian stamping cadence but the use of an actual cimbalom and a viola d’amore. Nothing is more touching in the work than Melinda’s sad ditty, beautifully sung by Andrea Rost, as she sits by the river cradling her child to a soft lament. The underlying message here, of course, is pity for suffering Hungary dishonoured by brutal Germany. Melinda’s companion is Tiborc, who, sturdily sung by Lajos Miller, exemplifies honest Magyar virtues of loyalty and endurance.Tamás Pál draws a colourful performance from the Hungarian Millennium Orchestra. Erkel scores simply but with considerable skill, drawing not only on the standard orchestral practice of the day but contributing some original effects such as the haunting sound of two soft piccolos. The recording does not always do enough justice to this, but gives a reasonable account of a vital and enjoyable work. I have not seen the text nor any accompanying material.

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