SURELY NO composer was more beloved during his own time that the Hungarian-born Karl Goldmark (1830-1915), whose long life say the birth and death of such figures as Brahmas, Joachim, Dvorak, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Albeniz and Chausson. Goldmark's music is seldom performed nowadays; but when we do hear the Violin Concerto in A Minor or the endearing "Rustic Wedding" Symphony, we can only wonder why we don't hear more -- and hear it more often.

One of the few other pieces we are likely to encounter -- and thus on records rather than in the concert halls -- is the Baler Music from Act III of this opera "The Queen of Sheba," which, like the "Rustic Wedding," demonstrates his craftmanship, his imaginativeness, his flair, his tast, and his gift for coming up with good tunes. There is a story, probably true, of a woman turning to Brahms during a performance of "The Queen of Sheba" to ask if a certain aria wasn't a folk song, and of Brahms having replied: "Not yet, madame, but it may become one."

Goldman wrote "The Queen of Sheba" during the 1860s. A grand march with chorus from this work was performed in Vienna in January 1874, in a memorable concert in which Liszt performed as soloist in two of his own works and the 40-year-old Brahms conducted a choral piece by Bach. The premiere of the opera took place in Vienna the following year, and just 10 years after that the work was given at the Met. It has not held the boards in our country, cut in continues to be performed in Europe and had an extended run in Israel a few years ago. Now it has been recorded in full for the first time, in a fine Hungarian State Opera performance conducted by Adam Fischer, in a four-disc Hungaroton set (SLPX-12179/12182) that could be one of this year's "sleepers."

This four-act work is a very grand opera, with a good deal of pagentry, extended ballet sequences, powerful marches and choruses, and more than a few striking arias. And what substance the music has! Goldmark apparently managed to write it without being drawn to imitate either Wagner or the celebrated Italian master to any meaningful degree. The style is entirely his own, in its soaring themes, its sumptuous colors, its thoroughgoing musicality. One may hear an occasional pre-echo of "Aida" (completed just after this work), of "Salome," and even of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" -- which is not to suggest that any of those works was composed under Goldmark's influence, but simply that he was looking forward as much as backward.

There are really no dull patches, and nowhere does the continuity sag; the work is quite a discovery. The title role is very impressively sung by mezzo-soprano Klara Takacs. The leading male role is not that of King Solomon (impressively sung by basso Sandor Soyom Nagy), but that of his court favorite, Assad, who abandons his fiancee Shulamith (Veronika Kincses, soprano), literally leaving her at the altar, out of infatuation with the queen. Assad is sung by the one non-Hungarian in the cast, the splendid German tenor Siegfried Jerusalem, whose name may or may not have suggested him as an especially apt candidate for the role, but who is, in any event, all one could ask, both musically and dramatically.

Every role is sung with eloquence and conviction. The Hungarian State Opera chorus is augmented by the Hungarian Army Male Chorus and the "Jeunesses Musicales" Chorus, and all of these bodies, together with the orchestra, are in fine shape. Adam Fischer, from the evidence here, is a major conducting talent; he is only 31 or 32 now, has been conducting for both the Bavarian and Vienna State Operas, and will preside over the San Francisco Opera's "Don Giovanni" this summer.