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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (1814)
Leonore - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Florestan – René Maison (tenor)
Rocco – Alexander Kipnis (bass)
Pizzaro – Julius Huehn (bass)
Marzelline – Marita Farell (soprano)
Jacquino – Karl Laufkötter (tenor)
Don Fernando – Herbert Janssen (baritone)
Prisoners – Emery Darcy and John Gurney
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Bruno Walter
Recorded from a broadcast on 22 February 1941
GUILD GHCD 2269/70 [2 CDs: 72.19 + 78.20]

 

This Fidelio comes hot on the heels of a rival Naxos transfer, by Ward Marston, which used Austrian Radio broadcast material. I should note at the outset that I’ve not heard the Naxos and can’t at this stage comment on Guild’s claim that their alternative source is superior to the mastertape they provided for Naxos, and which they say didn’t represent it well.

The performance, as distinct from any arguments regarding sonics, is utterly compelling and well deserves the kind of concentrated attention it’s now receiving. At the head stands the kinetic Bruno Walter. It’s not a word one would ordinarily think to use of him, much less his older post-War self, but his drive and passionate command in this score was incendiary, Walter whipping up the band and singers in a fast, linear, directional and profoundly exciting way (it’s not all razor sharp tempi of course; he relaxes where necessary – but the sense is one of forward momentum). As his New York Beethoven Symphonic cycle was a few years later to show his command of linear development was profound – and sculpted with considerably more dynamism than the Walter of the following decade, by which performances he tends to be judged. If proof were needed of his operatic mastery I would cite this Fidelio and the 1937 Vienna performance of The Marriage of Figaro (on Andante) - a performance that outdoes even his Met Figaro of 1944.

He had a strong, not flawless cast but one never less than compelling. At the head stands Flagstad. In his notes Richard Caniell fights a retrospective rearguard battle in defence of Lotte Lehmann in this role, citing her greater sense of humanity over Flagstad’s intense reserve. In fact the Met’s original 1936 preference for Flagstad, who’d burst on the Wagnerian scene, so upset Lehmann that she apparently said she’d never appear again as Leonore at the Met. Notwithstanding questions of pliancy of characterisation Flagstad is in technically superb voice. She manages to colour the voice with considerable expressivity even though it could be argued, and successfully I think, that her recitatives lack the last ounce of engagement. Melchior isn’t here; he wasn’t offered the role lest it "offend the tenors of the Italian wing" but we do have Maison, a hero of the Met Wagner cycles. Opinions divide over his assumption of the role; Caniell isn’t overly keen but others admire his grandeur. I happen to admire both the quality of the voice and its sustenance, retaining strength across the range as it does, though equally, yes, I’d like to have heard Melchior opposite Flagstad (or Lehmann). Another noted Wagnerian, tenor Karl Laufkötter, also impresses through force of character as much as anything – the voice was never particularly beautiful but it was deployed with real reserves of imagination. As Rocco Kipnis employs his big voice with exceptional flexibility – his theatrical instincts are sure, as we hear time and again in this performance, and the voice is at its magnificent best. Not to be overlooked is Marita Farell’s Marzelline – most impressively sung – and American born Huehn (what a loss that he recorded so infrequently and that his career lost ground after the War) and Herbert Janssen’s notable Don Fernando.

But above all this is Walter’s Fidelio in only his second Met performance. And you should lose no opportunity to acquaint yourself with his fast-moving humanity, and his intense identification with every fissure of a work that bore more than usual weight and resonance at the time. I would be remiss if I overlooked Guild’s excellent booklet, with performance histories, synopsis and cast notes and their usual high quality photographs.

Jonathan Woolf

Dear Mr. Woolf,

The competing Fidelio to which I refer in my recording notes in the
Guild booklet is my own restoration published on Naxos 8.110054-55.
The one by Ward Marston (a marvelous engineer) is not the same
performance as the 1941 broadcast.

The Guild release of the 1941 performance differs in sonics from my
earlier release on Naxos in many portions, specifically beginning in
the Act I quartet, and thereafter yielding more air, body and
improved tone. I could also hear in our later source superiority in
the opening commentary as well as later in the second act, thus I
decided the improvement over my earlier release on Naxos was
justified.

Your juxtaposition between Guild and a recent Naxos release
engineered by Mr. Marston will surely confuse purchasers. Would you
clarify in your text, or place this letter on the site with an
appropriate reference?

Many thanks for your interest and expressive reviews.

Best wishes,

Richard Caniell

 

see also review by Robert Farr


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