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Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (1814)
Leonore (mezzo) – Angela Denoke
Florestan (tenor) – Jon Villars
Don Pizarro (baritone) – Alan Held
Rocco (bass) – Laszlo Polgar
Marzelline (soprano) – Juliane Banse
Jaquino (tenor) – Rainer Trost
Don Fernando (bass-baritone) – Thomas Quasthoff
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Recorded in concert at the Philharmonie, Berlin, 25-28 April, 2003
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 57555-2 (2CDs: 65’58+44’17)

 

When Simon Rattle’s recent set of the Beethoven Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic was released, there seemed a certain amount of (understandable) scepticism from some critics. The basic problem could be summed up as ‘do we really need another set of these pieces?’ The general consensus was that Rattle just about got away with it, providing those elements of rediscovery and insight that we know he is so good at, coupled with the superb playing of the orchestra.

It strikes me that all the same questions apply here, but the answers are much trickier to pin down. Out of all the great operas in the repertoire, Fidelio has been exceptionally lucky on disc. From my own collection and those of friends I can cite at least half a dozen classic sets which stand the test of time. Among ‘old timers’ are famous recordings from Klemperer, Fürtwängler, Fricsay and Böhm. Recent frontrunners include Haitink, the ever-theatrical Bernstein, Mackerras, and even more recent sets of note from Harnoncourt and a marvellous Naxos bargain from Michael Halasz. Basically, just about everyone has had a go at Fidelio, and even though the casts on these sets vary enormously, this new Rattle recording enters the most crowded arena imaginable.

So how do the results stack up? Well, for a start I find myself agreeing with those critics who were disappointed when comparing Rattle with himself of a few years earlier. He conducted a memorable series of productions at Glyndebourne, never released commercially but broadcast on radio and TV, where the sheer rawness and vitality still resonate. The band was his favourite Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and I found myself longing for that element of danger and energy. Yes, this new recording is ostensibly ‘live’ (patched from concerts) but it is evident from the overture that a spark is missing. There is weight and power in abundance, but I find it all a bit ‘bottom heavy’, with those super-smooth strings and fruitily rounded horn playing. The basic tempo is around the Klemperer mark (ie. slowish) but the old man’s superb ear for detail, combined with the Philharmonia’s response, give that reading an extra dimension. Still, one does get swept up in the music making, which is certainly enjoyable on its own terms and, given the artists, to be expected. In fact the overture sums up the conducting and orchestral contribution throughout – refined, smooth, tempi fairly relaxed but with an all round homogeneity that is hard to fault. So what is niggling me?

Well, this is an opera, so quite a bit of the blame has to lie with the singers. The marvellously perceptive Juliane Banse, an artist I admire, is simply too matronly for the girlish, naïve Marzelline. The fresh, eager portrayal of Ingebord Hallstein (for Klemperer) is far preferable. On the other hand, I like the youthful impetuosity of Rainer Trost, who makes a convincing Jacquino. The two just don’t gel as a couple.

In the leading role of Leonore, we have an extremely intelligent assumption by Angela Denoke. She makes us believe in her desperation and determination at the same time, a difficult balancing act. Vocally she does show some strain in the upper register, and while her ‘Abscheulicher!’ does not pin one to the seat like Christa Ludwig’s stunning rendition, she is never less than enjoyable throughout the opera.

Partnering her as Florestan is Jon Villars, who sounds even more strained when the going gets tough. It is a different sort of strain to Jon Vickers (Klemperer) who always makes it sound suitably like it is the character’s (understandable) stress we are encountering. Villars just emits a rather ugly vibrato when much above the stave. He does try to compensate with some nice pianissimo head voice in places, but in the end one misses the sheer manly, vocal splendour of Vickers, Patzak (for Fürtwängler) or, more recently, Peter Seiffert for Harnoncourt.

The experienced Laszlo Polgar is in excellent form, and even though we are a few years on from his recording of the same part for Harnoncourt, the voice still has a strong, beautifully rich quality. Thomas Quasthoff’s Don Fernando is one of the best things on the set, and his noble baritone and way with the text are exemplary. Alan Held’s Don Pizzaro does disappoint slightly, but I have to admit to being used to the black-voiced authority of Walter Berry, again for Klemperer.

So individual performances are something of a mixed bag. But is has to be said that the voices work well where ensembles, which pepper the opera, are concerned. Take the great Act 1 quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ where Rattle’s rather plodding tempo is offset by superb balance from the singers, or the Act 2 trio ‘Euch werde Lohn in besser’n Welten’, where Florestan, Rocco and Leonore effortlessly weave together. The Prisoner’s Chorus at the end of Act 1 ‘O welche Lust’ has a suitable feeling of (literal) release, but is neither as emotionally direct as Klemperer or as overwhelmingly passionate as Bernstein.

The spoken dialogue (always a bone of contention in Fidelio recordings) has been mercifully cut to a minimum, and does at least sound as if it’s being spoken by the singers rather than actors (at least to my ears). Notes and presentation are good, and the set is in the mid-price category. If this is ultimately something of a disappointment, it is purely because of the high standards and levels of expectation Rattle has himself set, particularly given those Glyndebourne performances. It’s true this set came shortly after a stage run and was taken from ‘live’ concerts, but it never generates the sort of tension or electricity we know Rattle is capable of. When you know you can get exactly those qualities in classic sets elsewhere, it’s difficult to see this version toppling existing recommendations.

Tony Haywood

 



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