Have You Ever Heard “Háry János”?

Hary Janos cover

KODÁLY: Háry János / Sándor Solyom-Nagy, bar (Háry János); Klára Takács, mezzo (Örzse); Mária Sudlik, sop (Empress); Balász Pöka, bar (Napoleon); Katalin Mészöly, mezzo (Marie-Louise); Jószef Gregor, bass (Öreg Marci, the Emperor’s coachman); Sándor Palcsö, ten (Knight Ebelasztin); Hungarian State Opera Chorus & Orch.; Children’s Chamber Chorus of Hungarian Radio/TV; János Ferencsik, cond / Hungaroton HCD 12837-38

Poor Zoltan Kodály has, to some extent, gotten the short end of the stick over the last century. Because his music was not as harmonically astringent or rhythmically angular as that of his compatriot, Béla Bartók, the latter has been virtually deified while Kodály is largely remembered only as the composer of a few popular orchestral works: the Dances of Galánta and Marousszék, the “Peacock” Variations, the great Psalmus Hungaricus and the 25-minute orchestral suite from this opera. Yet he joined Bartók in making field recordings of Hungarian folk music, on which much of Bartók’s later music (and much of his own) was based, and Bartók himself praised Kodály lavishly for his dovetailing these into his music, particularly in this score which he considered to be the first truly great Hungarian opera, on a par with Weber’s Der Freischütz for German opera.

The other similarity between Háry János and Der Freischütz is that they are both “singspiels,” operas written around a spoken drama. Perhaps this is one reason why the full opera is so rarely performed and even more rarely recorded; to the best of my knowledge, the only other version was a recording on Decca, which I haven’t heard. Yet to judge from this 1995 recording, it clearly should be performed more often. As with Freischütz, the music is delightful and varied, in fact perhaps more so than Weber’s opera, with colorful orchestral effects and music that is both interesting and attractive. The main difference seems to be that in the case of Kodály’s work, there is much more of the spoken play—all of it omitted from this issue, although the original LP release must have included some of it since the back cover of the LP box lists speakers in addition to singers for the principal roles—and therefore duller for non-Hungarian audiences. But so what? Just produce it with a minimum of the dialogue and it will work like a charm.

And “charm” is clearly the operative word for Háry János. In many places, the songs and duets almost have more of a Russian quality about them, but not exactly Russian. The melodic and harmonic language are clearly Kodály’s, but the greater tunefulness of the set-pieces make for much more interesting listening than in Grieg’s incidental music for Peer Gynt, for instance, which contains perhaps four really good pieces (“Morning,” “Solvejg’s song,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and “Anitra’s Dance”) and a lot of stuff that goes in one ear and out the other.

The plot, as we all know, concerns an old peasant and former soldier sitting and drinking every day, regaling his cronies with stories of his exploits during the Napoleonic Wars. Háry supposedly won the love of Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s wife, before going off the battle and defeating the Emperor’s army single-handedly. A major character who appears in the opera but not in the suite is his beloved Örzse, who is smitten with him and becomes his wife but is dead by the time he re-tells his tales.

One can judge the extremely high quality of this performance not just from the superb singing of the four principals (Solyom-Nagy, Takács, Sudlik and Gregor) but more importantly from Ferencsik’s conducting of the music we know from the suite. It is even more exciting and enlivening than the classic recordings of Arturo Toscanini (one of his greatest performances of Eastern European music) and Klaus Tennstedt, and that’s saying something. As for the other music, new to me, I particularly enjoyed the rousing song that Háry sings with chorus (the “Recruiting Dance”) and the highly imaginative duet between the Empress and Marie-Louise. One thing that made me laugh was the “March and Children’s Chorus,” in which the kiddie singers sounded for all the world like on-key chipmunks. Listen and decide for yourself.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Have You Ever Heard “Háry János”?

  1. Alejandro Vidal says:

    Indeed, the original LP Hungaroton release includes all the spoken parts. If you like the sound of Hungarian language like me, you are going to find the spoken parts very pleasurable. Besides, the LP set has a very lavish book with the complete libretto and the action is easily followed.


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