March 14, 2013


Lehár: Der Göttergatte; Vocal and Orchestral Works from the German Radio Archive, 1933-1949. Liesl Andergast, Henny Herze, Anton Dermota, Franz Borsos, Fred Liewehr, Lizzi Holzschuh; Wiener Rundfunkchor und Orchester conducted by Max Schönherr. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Despite all the ways in which this release is flawed – and it would be easy to make a long list – it is an extraordinary audio document that will be a must-have for devotees of Franz Lehár’s music. For one thing, there are exactly two Lehár operettas whose librettists were Victor Léon and Leo Stein: Die Lustige Witwe and Der Göttergatte. For another, these operettas appeared not quite two years apart, Der Göttergatte (the composer’s third completed operetta) in January 1904 and Die Lustige Witwe in December 1905. For still another, Der Göttergatte shows Lehár treading, somewhat uneasily, into Offenbach’s territory, a fact for which this operetta was condemned in some quarters and one that led the composer later to recast it as Die Ideale Gattin in 1913, and then to revise the revision as Die Tangokönigin in 1921. And for yet another, this performance of Der Göttergatte preserves some of the last vestiges of an age in which singers and actors jointly performed roles and the delivery of many of the arias was closer to that of cabaret songs than to that of grand opera.

     This recording dates to March 15, 1945, in the last days of World War II, and the mere fact that it was made in Vienna at a time when the Third Reich still existed may prevent some people from buying or even listening to it. That may be an understandable reaction, at least in some quarters, but it is also, on a purely musical basis, a most unfortunate one.  Chances to hear Der Göttergatte are almost nonexistent, and this is the only chance anyone today will have to hear it conducted by Max Schönherr (1903-1984), a great expert in the dance music of Vienna’s Golden Age who is best known today for his rather overwrought completions and updatings of music by the Strauss family, Lanner and others – which he accomplished by “modernizing” the instrumentation in ways that would be wholly unacceptable today. But if Schönherr was a man of his time in making his “improvements,” he was also very much in tune with the spirit of Lehár, who was still alive when this recording was made. And Schönherr does an excellent job with this nearly complete radio version of Der Göttergatte (one of the flaws here is that two numbers from the score, No.9 and No. 17, are omitted, not by CPO but in the original recording).

     The quality of the singing here is variable, from very fine to rather screechy, and some of that is connected with the quality of the recording, which CPO has cleaned up nicely but which is still, after all, nearly 70 years old, complete with tape hiss, cut-off high notes and overall sound compression. What is truly amazing, though, is how little any of this matters, because the music is filled with delights and can justly be called a “find,” or at least a rediscovery.  The opera’s title means “The God-Husband” and also puns on the notion of “The Lord and Master.”  The plot – which, in a flaw that does lie with CPO, is not given in the booklet; and of course a libretto is far too much to hope for – is a twisted version of the tale of Alcmene, whom Jupiter seduced by taking the shape of her husband, Alcibiades. When Offenbach brings up this conquest in Orphée aux Enfers, he has Minerva sarcastically remark that she knows plenty of women on whom the husband disguise would not have worked. But Léon and Stein play the mortals’ love straight. Their change to the story has Juno become suspicious of the goings-on and disguise herself as Alcmene, so Jupiter ends up seducing his own wife (and preserving Victorian notions of sexual propriety). It is easy to see here the same hands that will shape Die Lustige Witwe in the near future. It is easy to see the composer’s predilections, too. Der Göttergatte is in a prologue and two acts, and the end of its first act – comparable to the end of the second act in the three-act Die Lustige Witwe – sounds very much the same musically and in staging. There are many little touches that look ahead: for instance, the musical interlude between the first and second acts here is very similar to that between the second and third of Die Lustige Witwe. And there is a delightful pre-Merry-Widow-Waltz humming passage in Jeder Mann glaubt seiner Frau, and another in a Trinklied that also contains a “hopla hopla” refrain that will have listeners thinking of the Reitermann duet in Die Lustige Witwe.

     There are places here where Lehár channels other composers, too. He was at times accused of being a “poor man’s Puccini,” and one passage in the duettino Ich harre dein is nearly identical to one in La Bohème. And there are flickers of cabaret-style Kurt Weill as well, in the finale to the first scene of the first act and in the terzett Du hast mich doch betrogen. These instances do not, however, come across as if Lehár is groping for his own style: it seems almost completely formed already, although his typical extended yearning passages on solo violin are absent here. Instead, what comes across in Der Göttergatte is an attempt to superimpose the Lehár style on subject matter to which it adheres imperfectly – and indeed, the composer never again used a classical-times setting of this sort. But there is so much here that is delightful and unknown to modern listeners that this recording of Der Göttergatte is a simply wonderful one to have.

     And it comes with bonuses, too – eight of them, often in genuinely execrable sound but providing marvelous insights into Lehár and his music between 1933 and 1949. The composer himself conducts the Orientalischer Marsch (a 1941 recording) and one of the few pieces he wrote during the Third Reich years: Wien, du bist das Herz der Welt, with soprano Ester Réthy (1942).  One of Richard Tauber’s last recordings before he fled Germany in 1933 because of his Jewish ancestry is here: Du und ich sind füreinander bestimmt. And there is another song, An der Saar und am Rein, featuring tenor Herbert Ernst Groh (1939).  There are also three instrumental works conducted by Otto Dobrindt: Pikanterien-Walzer (1943), Stadtparkschönheiten (also 1943), and Serenade for Violin and Orchestra, with soloist Ferdinand Meysel (1949). Finally, Max Schönherr appears as conductor, with Willi Uhlenhut as solo violinist, in a 1943 recording of Lehár’s very early (1897) Ungarische Tanzfantasie. This entire CPO release shines considerable light on less-known Lehár works as they were performed and recorded in a dark, dark time in history – to which, at least retrospectively, they bring a certain amount of reflected light.

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