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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1815)
Fidelio (selection arr. For wind ensemble by Wenzel Sedlak, c.1815) [43:38], Sextet in E flat op.71 (1792) [19:30], Rondino in E flat WoO 25 (1793) [06:21]
Nachtmusique/Eric Hoeprich
Recorded in Kortenhoef (Gereformeered Kerk), Holland, February 2003
GLOSSA GCD 920606 [69:38]

It is related that a military band once passed below the window of the Scottish composer Sir Alexander Mackenzie, playing a selection from a recent operetta of his. Evidently struck by a familiar turn of phrase, the composer paused to remark, "You know, that chap Sullivan does write some good tunes".

Poor Beethoven, aurally challenged as he was by the time Sedlak’s arrangement of a selection from his only opera was published around 1815, would have had other reasons for not recognizing his own music had it been played under his window by a passing band. In any case, the themes from this work are not such as to be easily confused. All the same, the work is sufficiently transformed in its character to deceive a casual listener.

It is interesting to reflect what sort of idea we might have of this music if we knew it only in this form; in Beethoven’s own time access to a major work like Fidelio was to be had, unless you lived in one of the great musical centres, only by means of domestic arrangements for piano with maybe an extra instrument or two, or else these once popular arrangements for wind band; mindful of this Beethoven gladly gave his consent to the operation, though there is no evidence that he actually gave his assistance.

My own childhood was sufficiently sheltered, in a boarding school in rural Kent with a somewhat limited LP collection, for my first experiences of some of the great masterworks to have been in my own heavy-handed renditions on the piano, either alone or with an even heavier-handed partner, and I formed some quite definite ideas about how I thought these works would sound on the orchestra – ideas which were sometimes so wrong that it took some time to adjust to the reality when I finally knew it. The hands-on experience is always to be recommended, but I daresay it would be almost impossible now for someone to have his hands-on experience of a standard work without the sound of the original orchestration in his ears.

I think we must be grateful to Nachtmusique, which Eric Hoeprich leads from the clarinet, for not attempting to create with their slender resources the sort of ethos, drama and moral fervour which we all know will be created by even a middling good performance of Fidelio in the opera house. Instead they take it at face value, as players might have in 1815 who knew it in only this form and maybe knew nothing of what the opera was about. So what did these innocents find?

Well, Sedlak presents the first act fairly complete and then becomes progressively more selective. He wisely does not attempt to transcribe Pizarro’s ravings to this medium, and he similarly ignores the finale, concluding his section with the duet for Leonore and Florestan. Florestan’s great aria is shorn of its introduction (which could never have worked); the last part is transformed quite amazingly as a result of having it played comfortably on the oboe instead of sung by a tenor reduced to extremes by the cruel tessitura. It sounds jaunty, good-humoured and rather charming. And here is the rub; not only the selection but the general tone of the arrangement and its performance give the idea that this must be a delightful, melodious and listener-friendly opera without any great pretensions towards profundity. Whatever did those who knew it in this form think when they actually heard a real performance in the theatre?

Another oddity is that the balance between the instruments doesn’t always correspond to what we know to be the correct balance when the music is sung with an orchestra. In particular, Sedlak’s habit of giving the male parts to the bassoon (what else could he have done?) means that they sometimes disappear entirely. I am thinking in particular of the faster sections of Rocco’s aria where anyone would think the main point was the flurrying semiquavers (originally on the violins). Here again, I would say Nachtmusique have made the right choice. It would have been a temptation to have the bassoonist going flat out and the higher instruments a tiny pianissimo, and maybe even have the engineers help out, but here again, the innocent players of 1815 might just have supposed that the flurrying semiquavers were the main point.

So, while I hope this disc will not fall into the hands of someone who has never heard Fidelio in its original form, it offers some illuminating thoughts for well practised music lovers.

And it is, in whatever form, greater music than the early works, genuinely written for the medium, which complete the disc. The Sextet has little but a pleasing mellifluousness to recommend it and I wondered if the players might have given it rather more guts. But on the other hand, the Rondino boasts an extremely attractive main theme and here the performance is not found wanting so perhaps they were right not to try to find anything extra in the Sextet.

My copy had a few clicks and pops, though maybe a good clean is all it needed. Check when you buy just in case. The recording as such is good and the helpful notes are in English, French, German and Spanish (despite the Dutch players and location, Glossa is a Spanish-based company).

Christopher Howell

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