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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (1814, sung in English) [111'00]
Christine Brewer (soprano) Leonore; Richard Margison (tenor) Florestan; Robert Lloyd (bass) Rocco; Rebecca Evans (soprano) Marzelline; Peter Wedd (Jacquino); Pavlo Hunka (bass-baritone) Don Pizarro; Christopher Purves (bass) Don Fernando, Second Prisoner; Ashley Catling (tenor) First Prisoner
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry.
Text included.
Rec. Blackheath Halls, London, on August 21st-25th, 2004.


Christine Brewer's Leonore is everything one might hope for. Her recent disc of arias in English for the same label (CHAN3127 – see review) was exemplary, but here she gets a chance to flex her vocal muscles in one of the most rewarding roles in the repertoire.

But for every great Leonore there should be not one but two great men. One of course is her on-stage husband, Florestan (who has to wait until Act 2 for his entrance); the other should be in the pit. David Parry has the task of not only making the work cohere making it feel like a soul-shaking experience. Richard Margison has to appear as the man with core morals that put freedom of expression before all else, and who suffers for them.

The trajectory of the opera is, basically, from Germanic opera buffa (the Marzelline/Jacquino exchanges of the first scene) through to high drama and, eventually, light; literally so in the case of some stagings I've seen! This is confirmed by the Overture we have to Fidelio - as opposed to Leonore - here nicely together with superb contributions from the horns and clarinets. Parry  emphasises the contrasts between fast and slow to good effect. The recording has good stereo spread without over-emphasising the layout. Most importantly, there is a sniff of the opera house about it all.

Rebecca Evans is a light Marzellina, very neat in her delivery, and her voice opens out to full mobility easily. Wedd as Jacquino is not at the same high standard, but the two nevertheless make a believable pairing. Real knocking at the door, too; you hear that more often in the opera house than on recordings, where it is deemed, one would imagine, to be distracting. Parry is at his best in these earlier stages of the opera, responding well to the lighter moods.

Evans confirms her excellence in her solo aria, 'O war ich schon mit dir vereint' (here, 'If only we could marry today'). She is light and young to reflect the character, of course. Only at 'Die Hoffnung schön' ('That hope engulfs my heart with fire') does she slightly underplay her hand.

The one singer who matches Brewer is the veteran Robert Lloyd as Rocco. His voice carries not only authority but wisdom too. His money aria is absolutely superb.

Pizarro is Pavlo Hunka, sounding evil without being completely black of outlook ('Ha! welsch ein Augenblick'; Ah! this is ecstasy'). He certainly gets Leonore's indignation here. Brewer's 'Abscheulicher! ... Komm, Hoffnung' ('Vile Murderer ... Come, hope') reveals a woman deeply affronted. Her vocal equipment is fully the equal of Beethoven's huge demands and the large leaps are negotiated with consummate ease. It is almost as if she inspires the Philharmonia brass to top form, too. The final horn notes are positively screamed out!

Richard Margison (who has sung Florestan, we're told, at Vancouver) has power and lyric stretch. Try his 'In des Lebens Frühlingstagen' – 'In the spring of youthful promise'. His initial cry of 'God' is floated, no cri de coeur à la Vickers, rather an internalised cry of anguish. Generally very good but at levels of higher than forte he can be tiring to listen to.

But it is Brewer who comes into her own in this act. Her 'Go back!' ('Zurück!') after Pizarro's 'You Perish!' is the embodiment of a cutting edge of sheer determination and iron resolution. Similarly her 'Namenlöse Freude' ('O joy beyond all understanding') is resplendent. A pity Parry does not keep the tension flowing at this point ... as Klemperer on HMV did.

Parry's way with the Act 1 Quartet ('Mir ist so wunderbar'; 'A wonder, clear and pure') sits rather on the surface and points the way for his handling of the second act, the close of which is neat yet not all that uplifting. Yet the recording is exemplary, with singers carefully and convincingly 'placed' in the sound picture. Parry's handling of the later Prisoner's Scene is far better. He elicits breathtaking pianissimi from the Philharmonia and a real halo of strings as the prisoners enter the light. As I wrote my listening notes, I noted that the Second Prisoner was far better than the first, not realising the Second is a doubled part here; Purves, ironically the sadistic imprisoner! The close of Act 1 positively glows.

A fascinating set, then. Not a five-star product, despite its luxury packaging, but definitely worth it for the unforgettable Leonore of Christine Brewer. Otto Klemperer's Fidelios (the famous HMV and the live Testament SBT1328) remain chained to my shelves lest they stray too far, but this one has earned a place near it, too.

Colin Clarke








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