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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Fidelio (1814) - highlights
1. Overture [6:56]
Act I:
2. O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint [4:00]
3. Mir ist so wunderbar [4:42]
4. Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben [2:41]
5. Ha! Welch ein Augenblick! [3:00]
6. Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? ... Komm, Hoffnung [7:35]
7. O welche Lust! [7:17]
Act II:
8. Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! [11:22]
9. Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen [3:41]
10. O namenlose Freude! [2:57]
11. Wer ein holdes Weib errungen [4:01]
Helga Dernesch (soprano) – Leonore; Jon Vickers (tenor) – Florestan; Karl Ridderbusch (bass) – Rocco; Helen Donath (soprano) – Marzelline; Horst R. Laubenthal (tenor) – Jaquino; Zoltán Kelemen (bass) – Don Pizarro; José Van Dam (bass-baritone) – Don Fernando; Werner Hollweg (tenor) – First Prisoner; Siegfried Rudolf Frese (baritone) – Second Prisoner; Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin; Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, 12–16 October, 15 December 1970


Fidelio is technically a Singspiel: with spoken dialogue linking the musical numbers. This should make it  easier to highlight than many operas of later date with more or less continuous music. Certainly it avoids forcing producers sometimes to fade the music. As usual with highlights discs one loses the development of the story but to some extent this is rectified through a cued synopsis. The end result on this occasion is more a collection of numbers. For this reason it’s the quality of the singing more than the conductor’s overriding view that matters the most. With such a strong personality as Herbert von Karajan at the helm there are still some distinctive stamps of his individuality. These are most obvious in the extreme dynamics. The greatest problem for the domestic listener is to find a suitable setting of the volume control. As a matter of fact, in the fairly small room where I listen, I need to adjust the volume continuously if I want to hear the pianissimos and yet avoid contracting tinnitus when the Berlin Philharmonic are let loose in thundering fortissimos. The risk is imminent in the powerfully dramatic overture, which is gloriously played here. With the responsive voices of the Deutsche Oper Karajan builds up the prisoners’ chorus in one long arc. Here it is interesting to find Werner Hollweg, one of the foremost German-speaking lyrical tenors for a number of years, in the small role as First Prisoner.

The principals – and I suppose most collectors buy a highlights disc for their sake – are primarily from Karajan’s regular stable. From the late 1960s and onwards he often chose lighter voices than usual for dramatic roles; sometimes with good results, sometimes less so. Karl Ridderbusch, Karajan’s Fafner and Hagen in his complete Ring cycle, has little of the blackness of, say, Gottlob Frick, but he sings Rocco with great warmth. I wish there had been more of him. The other bass, Zoltán Kelemen, who was Karajan’s Alberich, is a ferocious Pizarro, making this evil governor of the prison an even more formidable character than on most recordings. Helga Dernesch, Brünnhilde in the last two parts of the Ring, is an excellent Leonore, singing with both venom and warmth in her aria. Jon Vickers, who was Siegmund for Karajan and a couple of years later sang Otello in Karajan’s remake, is his inimitable self with intense dramatic outbreaks and extreme pianissimos. His big scene, opening act II, is exceptional in its contrasting emotions – slightly wayward but enormously gripping.

The young Helen Donath is a bright and charming Marzelline, singing well in her aria and in the quartet where we also get a glimpse of the tenor Horst R. Laubenthal. José Van Dam, another Karajan regular, is only heard in unison with the others in the final ensemble.

There is very little negative to be said about this issue; the only drawback – as with highlights discs in general – is that once heard one almost certainly would like the complete opera. Readers who are well stocked with complete Fidelios already but with a special interest in one or more of the soloists here, shouldn’t hesitate. Others are better advised to save up for the complete recording, when/if it appears again – a search on EMI’s catalogue gave only this highlights disc. Since I haven’t heard the complete set I don’t know how eccentric Karajan is here so a safer recommendation would be Klemperer – also EMI, now in the GROC series. You could also try the wholly admirable super-budget Naxos set with Michael Halasz conducting and a star line-up of singers including Alan Titus, Gösta Winbergh, Inga Nielsen and Kurt Moll.

Göran Forsling




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