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Emmerich Kálmán: Lieder
26 Jan 2006

KÁLMÁN: Lieder

I wonder if a record company, any record company, would have taken the trouble of recording these songs if the composer had been Zoltan Kocsis or Deszö Ranki instead of Imre (his real first name) Kálmán?

Emmerich Kálmán: Lieder

Anna Korondi (soprano); Istvan Kovacs (baritone); Peter Stamm (piano)
Recorded Kleiner Sendesaal March 18th – 23th 2004

cpo 777 059-2 [CD]


Moreover it is no coincidence that the cpo label produced this CD as the firm has recently released a string of rare operetta recordings by Kálmán and that other Hungarian genius, Ferenc Lehár, which prove that a lot of lesser-known operettas are musically on the same level as acknowledged masterpieces yet are discarded solely and only for their silly libretti. It is by now well-known that Kálmán, like Lehár and that other genius, Leo Fall, first and foremost wanted a career as a composer of “serious” music. Co-students of Kálmán’s teacher were Bartók and Kodály. Kálmán at first had some artistic successes, which of course didn’t make him rich and he didn’t much believe in the inspired artist living in destitution in an ice cold attic (During his stay in banishment in the US in the forties he earned a lot of fees by conducting his own works, though that was peanuts compared to the amounts of money he made on the stock exchange). Between 1902 and 1906 he composed, among other things, 20 art songs on Hungarian texts. In 1907 these songs were even published as a cycle called Dalai, for which he received the Emperor Franz Joseph Prize from the city of Budapest. At the time he had almost finished his first big operetta success, Tatarjaras, which would later make the rounds of the world in the German version as Ein Herbstmanöver—it presently exists in recording only as Autumn Manoeuvres by the Ohio Light Opera company). The songs were first forgotten and then thought to be lost forever. Enter Stefan Frey, a German author who specializes in exemplary biographies of operetta composers (his Kálmán and Lehár biographies are a must for every operetta lover…..if they can read German). During his research for “Unter Tränen lachen — Emmerich Kálmán” he discovered a set of the Dalai cycle in the Budapest State library, where they had gone unnoticed for a century.

Note that in reality Dalai is not a real cycle with a continuing story like Die Winterreise. In fact it is just a collection of twenty songs. Most of them are on rather gloomy texts about fatherlessness, loneliness and dark nights. Then there are some songs he later used for his first singspiel, though there too is nothing that hints at the prodigious charm and joy of Countess Mariza or The Gipsy Princess. They are somewhat folk-style songs reminding me a bit of Stephen Foster, though without the American’s melodic inspiration. There is nothing laboured in the Brahms or Hugo Wolf way. With the last songs Kálmán clearly reveals he is thinking of operetta. The sad melancholy makes way for vivaciousness like in “Örök mamor” (track 3) or “Kurucok tabori” (track 18), which is officially the camp song of a crusader but is the nearest the composer reaches out towards Count Boni’s “Ganz ohne Weiber geht die Chose nicht” in Gipsy Princess. So these songs are always pleasant to listen to and, though the CD contains full texts with German and English translations, no deeper insights are conquered reading them while listening to the music.

There is a bonus of four pretty piano pieces à la Schumann, a composer Kálmán admired . One can easily imagine a young fine lady of good bourgeois stock playing them in front of a few admirers. All in all, I hesitate to admit it but the CD grows on you with repeated hearing while reading or typing. The two singers are not exactly world stars but serious dedicated artists. Baritone Istvan Kovacs (born 1972) has a warm and supple voice well schooled in Lieder and with some Don Giovanni’s behind the belt. Soprano Anna Korondi is one of those versatile singers (Lieder, World Premières of soon to be forgotten operas and some smaller roles in Richard Strauss and Wagner) who never turn into a big name but have a full workload. She has a nice, though somewhat undistinguished, lyric soprano that from time to time turns a little bit sour.

Jan Neckers

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