March 24, 2022


New Year’s Concert 2022. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Sony. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Emmerich Kálmán: Gräfin Mariza. Betsy Horne and Lydia Teuscher, sopranos; Pia Viola Buchert, mezzo-soprano; Mehrzad Montazeri and Jeffrey Treganza, tenors; Peter Schöne, baritone; Frank Manhold, speaker; Konzertvereinigung Wiener Volksopernchor and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     After two years of pandemic-fueled miseries, amid spiraling international tensions, the annual New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic was more welcome than ever at the start of 2022. Indeed, conductor Daniel Barenboim, leading the gala for the third time (after appearing in 2009 and 2014), makes exactly that point in a short German-and-English address toward the end of the new Sony two-CD release of the performance. Anyone who saw the 2022 performance might well have become concerned about the 79-year-old conductor, who did not look well. But he certainly conducted well – and, perhaps more to the point, the Vienna Philharmonic played extremely well, as it always does. As large an ensemble as it is, it scarcely needs a conductor for the repertoire included in these annual galas: the music is, in a very real sense, in the players’ blood – Wiener Blut indeed. As always, the musical mixture included a few items, six in all, that have not been heard before at these concerts: one of the pleasures of these annual get-togethers is the chance to hear the magnificent orchestra play material that is new at the concerts. Also as always, most pieces on offer have been heard at these concerts in the past, and there are certain conventions of performance that it is a joy to experience at a time when so much else in life has been upended – for instance, the inclusion as encores of Johann Strauss Jr.’s An der schönen blauen Donau and then, as the very last piece, Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky-Marsch, with the audience clapping along in time. The program for 2022 was perhaps even more strongly Strauss-centered than usual: only three of the 18 works were not by members of the Strauss family. Two of those three were brand-new to these concerts: the delightful waltz Nachtschwärmer by Carl Michael Ziehrer (1843-1922), which requires the musicians to sing along not once but twice, and the bubbly “character piece” Heinzelmännchen by Joseph Hellmesberger II (1855-1907) – the title translates as “pixies,” “leprechauns” or ”elves,” and the music portrays them with notable skill. The third non-Strauss piece offered, another by Hellmesberger, was Kleine Anzeiger (“Little Advertiser”), one of three news-focused pieces on the program – the three casting the reporting and consumption of news in a far brighter and more-pleasant light than anything shining on the news media today. The Hellmesberger galop was followed by Strauss Jr.’s well-known Morgenblätter (“Morning Papers”) waltz and then by another of the works heard for the first time at these annual concerts: Eduard Strauss’ Kleine Chronik (“News in Brief”), a fast polka matched neatly to the still-extant concept of the title. The combination of well-known and less-known pieces, of somewhat longer and somewhat shorter ones, of polkas and galops and marches with more-extended formats such as the redoubtable Die Fledermaus overture, made the 2022 Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert every bit as much a joy as this musical spectacular always is. And perhaps the music itself, along with the conductor, carried a wish for better times ahead: the final piece before the encores was Josef Strauss’ superb waltz Sphärenklänge (“Music of the Spheres”), which carries with it a hope for universal harmony that these days often seems as distant as the heavens.

     Many of the short-form pieces included in the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual concerts were created by their composers from stage works – in the latest concert, for instance, there was the Strauss Jr. waltz Tausend und eine Nacht as well as the overture to Die Fledermaus. The pleasure of hearing pieces of this kind in their original settings is different and delightful in its own way. In the case of Emmerich Kálmán’s 1924 operetta, Gräfin Mariza (“Countess Maritza”), the music is so nonstop wonderful, so tuneful and hummable and danceable, that it is easy to understand why the work’s première ended up lasting for six hours to accommodate the many audience demands for repeats of numbers, and then repeats of the repeats. The work’s plot, which is no more insubstantial than that of other operettas and actually humanizes the characters more than is usually the case, involves the budding romance between the titular countess and her estate manager – actually a count working on the estate after becoming impoverished, to try to save enough money to provide a dowry for his sister. The second couple includes the count’s sister, Lisa, and, very amusingly, one Baron Zsupán, brought into Kálmán’s work from Johann Strauss Jr.’s Der Zigeunerbaron. Kálmán’s music for Zsupán owes nothing to Strauss, being (if anything) even more Hungarian-flavored. But operetta audiences familiar with the Strauss work, as most would no doubt have been, would surely have enjoyed the “in joke,” which librettists Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald manage adeptly by having the countess invent the baron as a suitor – to ward off others who are only after her money – only to discover that Zsupán really does exist, and wants to pay court to her…until he decides that Lisa is more his type. There are the usual mixups and misunderstandings as the operetta progresses – and as wonderful as the two-CD performance on CPO is, there are the usual frustrations for English-only speakers in the absence of an included libretto or a link to one online (although the booklet does a better-than-average job of summarizing the action scene by scene). Unlike the situation with the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert, in which the orchestra could dispense with a conductor if it so chose, the conductor’s pacing and orchestral balance – and handling of the soloists and chorus – are crucial for Gräfin Mariza. Ernst Theis, who is something of a specialist in this repertoire, does a wonderful job keeping the music moving propulsively and allowing Kálmán’s unceasing melodic flow to remain center stage throughout. Kálmán (1882-1953) and Franz Lehár (1870-1948) together ruled the operetta world during the so-called Silver Age of the form, but Lehár constantly pushed operetta in new directions, even more so after the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I. Kálmán, in works such as Gräfin Mariza, stayed closer to the roots of the form and created nostalgic pieces in which the Great War and its depredations had no place. Really good performances of Gräfin Mariza, such as this live recording from 2018, show just how closely Kálmán adhered to the Golden Age operetta formulas of Strauss Jr. and others: everything is light, frothy, and as tuneful as can be, without the somewhat erotic undercurrent that Lehár brought to established musical forms (such as the waltzes in Die lustige Witwe and Der Graf von Luxemburg). The entire cast of this Munich production is wholeheartedly engaged in the music, with Betsy Horne as the countess and Mehrzad Montazeri as the financially embarrassed count particularly well matched. Jeffrey Treganza is also notable as Baron Zsupán: his highly amusing role-playing as the count’s rich Aunt Cuddenstein, a bit of third-act business that helps bring matters to a most satisfactory conclusion, is a highlight of the performance. Kálmán’s inventive and clever Hungarian-flavored orchestration is another high point: the ensemble includes the distinctive dulcimer-like cimbalom (played by Olga Mishula) and saxophone-like tárogató (played by Péter Horváth), both of which provide appropriately exotic coloration to the proceedings. Gräfin Mariza is a throwback in many ways, and was one even at the time of its première. But that scarcely matters: it is a trifle, yes, but like the short-form trifles of the Strauss family and others of 19th-century Vienna, this operetta provides as welcome a temporary escape from everyday life in the 21st century as it did in the post-Great-War 20th.

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