The not-so-merry widower and some wonderful music

The name Franz Lehár is best remembered nowadays for his operettas, for a fund of wonderful melodies and for what’s perhaps the most politically incorrect of all song lyrics (‘Girls were made to love and kiss’). He’s also a composer whose lovingly gemütlich style calls on a very singular manner of music-making, one that’s constantly aglow. Lehár recordings of note stretch way back to the shellac era when the composer himself set down 78s of key arias with his greatest singing interpreter, the tenor Richard Tauber – whose father was Jewish hence his banishment from Nazi-ruled territories – while subsequently there appeared significant sets of the operettas featuring the likes of Fritz Wunderlich, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda, Giuseppe di Stefano and countless others. But this new Hänssler Profil collection ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ (‘You are my heart’s delight’, 1 cd + 1 dvd, PH22004, c£24.00), where Manfred Honeck conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, is distinguished by some of the finest Lehár conducting since Rudolf Kempe and the composer’s own. Someone ought to appoint Honeck to conduct a Vienna New Year’s Day Concert. He’d likely be the best we’ve had since Carlos Kleiber.

But before commenting further on the music, I’d like to draw your attention to the DVD which is in effect a fictitious interview, undertaken in German with subtitles, where a canny journalist (subtly portrayed by the Austrian actress Aglaia Szyszkowitz) is welcomed by the 75-years-old composer (vividly played by Wolfgang Hübsch) who although frail after an illness is alert to, and ultimately slayed by, the questions she poses him (for The Daily Telegraph we’re told). His answers by the way are compiled from reliable sources and are therefore authentic. 

“How did you survive the War?” is a telling opener, or one of them. “We don’t want to talk about the War” insists Lehár emphatically, though he is drawn to confess that The Merry Widow was the favourite operetta of Hitler and his henchmen. “But was that my fault?” protests Lehár’ “…. I owed nothing to the Nazis.” Thereafter the mood lightens and the conversation switches to musical issues …. until 1938 approaches and with it the Anschluss. “Of course, we were long gone by then …” confesses Elsa. “You? …. long gone? …. why?” replies Lehár. “You know Herz is a Jewish name?” she explains.  And so Lehár is after all coerced into facing the one subject he wanted to avoid, the war and its attendant tragedies. “Why didn’t you leave?” asks Herz. “I didn’t have to,” answers Lehár candidly before unfolding one tragedy after another. In the end, he regretfully draws a halt to the interview and asks Herz to come back the next day. The unwanted shadow cast, he’s utterly spent. All this intensity is offset by frequent footage taken from the accompanying concert featuring soprano Camilla Nylund, and the tenors Piotr Beczala and Michael Schade, mostly in some of Lehár’s ‘greatest hits’. It’s a pleasure to watch.

How warming to see Honeck’s generous cues for music that he must often have played when he was a violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Orchestras. Gold and Silver opens the programme, initially capricious and lively, then luscious as the first waltz enters, truly piano (as marked, the second time around) then jumping to a jaunty forte for the second section. The way Honeck and his players move from section to section, like a master pianist teasing his way around a delicious Strauss waltz transcription, is the stuff of real artistry. Likewise, the equally familiar Merry Widow Waltz while the vocal items taken from the major operettas are given ardent performances, mostly by Nylund and Beczala. Schade treats us to the rarely heard ‘tone poem for tenor and large orchestra’ Fieber (‘Fever’), with its use of the Rákóczi March and the Russian Song of the Planes, setting words by Erwin Weill who was interned in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941 then sent to Riga where he was murdered. So you see, fine as the music is, that wretched shadow just won’t go away.

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