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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (1805)
Leonore – Sena Jurinac
Florestan – Jon Vickers
Rocco – Gottlob Frick
Don Pizarro – Hans Hotter
Marzelline – Elsie Morrison
Jacquino – John Dobson
Don Fernando – Forbes Robinson
The Covent Garden Chorus, The Covent Garden Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Recorded 24th February 1961 at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
mono recording. Full price.
TESTAMENT SBT2 1328 [77’52+64’50]

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (1805)
Leonore – Anna Bathy
Florestan – Endre Rosler
Rocco – Mihaly Szekely
Don Pizarro – Oszkar Maleczky
Marzelline – Maria Matayas
Jacquino – Gyula Angyl Nagy
Don Fernando – Istvan Koszo
Orchestra and Chorus of Hungarian State Opera/Otto Klemperer
Recorded 18th November, 1948 in Budapest.
second disc includes SCHUBERT Symphony No. 8 and BACH Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
Mono recording. Medium price.
URANIA URN 22.246 [75’13+59’14]

Fidelio, it must be said, is not an easy opera to admire (the composer even had some difficulty with the monster he had created). But in a great performance it can give the illusion of being a great work, despite its many faults. The most obvious of these is its plot - though that is a fault by no means unique to Beethoven’s opera. One could argue that what Beethoven achieves within these limitations of believability is almost overwritten by his dramatic skill, an often over-looked Beethovenian virtue in this opera. Beneath the simplicity of its story – this is almost the ultimate ‘rescue’ drama – lie fragile human emotions, human misery and a wider thesis of humanity versus tyranny all set within the grim terrain of a prison. That drama is highlighted by the music that Beethoven composed for his characters. The supernatural figures of Leonore/Fidelio, Florestan and Don Pizarro are given music of uncommon beauty; in contrast, Rocco, Marzelline and Jacquino are given music of uncommon ordinariness. Yet, even within the context of the great music something almost nobler bubbles beneath the surface and it is this that can sometimes undermine performances of the work. Pizarro’s aria ‘Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick’ is fermented by boiling rage as he plans the murder of Florestan but its response is Leonore’s ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’ music, enormous in scale and ambition, that tries to be all things at the same time. In very few performances in my experience is this music both exciting and beautiful, as it should be, but in at least one performance on record it achieves just that.

That performance is Testament’s transfer of a live BBC broadcast of Fidelio from Covent Garden in 1961. Preceding his Philharmonia studio recording by almost exactly a year, this Covent Garden one is one of the very greatest opera recordings a listener can ever hope to hear. Where his Philharmonia version was limited by the month long recording process at Covent Garden we have uncommon electricity, a sweeping grandeur, and an impeccable cast that has never been bettered. Moreover, the opera is presented uncut with all the spoken dialogue (as opposed to secco recitative) in place and, perhaps controversially, Leonore No.3 inserted after the Leonore/Florestan duet in Act II. In both respects, this differs from the other Klemperer Fidelio under review here, the 1948 Hungarian performance, released for the first time on CD (the Covent Garden Fidelio has previously been available on the enterprising Melodram label). In the Hungarian recording we have neither the spoken dialogue nor Leonore No.3, though the drawback is that it is sung in Hungarian (something the booklet notes fail to mention). What is so fascinating about Budapest, however, is its sheer drama and the magnetic way in which Klemperer spins through the opera with torrential power. This has much in common with the way that Klemperer performed Beethoven symphonies at the time, performances that were often shorn of their tragedy and solemnity. This Fidelio is unlike any late Klemperer, and has little comparative meaning when set beside recordings from the same decade by Furtwängler and Toscanini. Both of those conductors (especially the former) took a much grander view of the work than Klemperer does in 1948; indeed, both eschewed the lightness of touch that Klemperer gives to this Hungarian performance to give us a much more Wagnerian interpretation of it. If the recording is an important historical document – and it clearly is – it is in how it anticipates one made nine years later, in 1957, by Ferenc Fricsay, the first that incorporated the spoken dialogue into Fidelio.

Where the two performances are similar, however, is in that they both derive from productions that Klemperer oversaw in every artistic respect. This gives both recordings a convincing trajectory and focus that is largely missing from others of the opera; it was, as Klemperer suggested, to ensure that the musical conception of the work was not disturbed by what was happening on stage. It is arguable that his Philharmonia performance suffered from casting problems Klemperer had little control over (at Covent Garden he got what he had asked for), and this issue simply doesn’t arise in the Covent Garden recording. Christa Ludwig, for example, and fine as she is, seems less emotive, less moving than Sena Jurinac is at Covent Garden. Moreover, Jurinac’s creamier tone is like balm compared with Ludwig’s slightly harsher upper register. Their performances of the ‘Abscheulicher!’ are a case in point: Jurinac is meltingly tender where Ludwig is not, Jurinac more sheerly thrilling than Ludwig’s more earthbound approach. Beethoven, a rather clumsy writer for the human voice, found in Jurinac his ideal Leonore.

One of the virtues of all the Klemperer Fidelios is the way in which he gets all his orchestras to play with a chamber-like clarity. In the case of both the Act I Quartet and the Prisoners’ Chorus this is because he reduces the strings to achieve that otherworldly effect, but in the Covent Garden performance the re-seating of the orchestra – with the woodwind placed right in front of the conductor – helped achieve that Beethovenian balance of woodwind to the fore that Klemperer preferred in his later recordings. Also similar, is the non-interventionist approach that Klemperer brings to all his recordings of the opera – the oboe solo in Florestan’s Act II aria, for example, is so languidly done as to suggest Klemperer just lets the soloist phrase as he wishes. In all three cases it is uniquely done, but at Covent Garden it has just that bit more risk to it. That is not to say, however, that Klemperer’s approach is overtly minimalist – there is a depth of sonority to this Covent Garden Fidelio that is truly thrilling, the string tone – with separated violin desks – at once a combination of darkness and light, density and clarity. Tempi are fluent – less so than in Hungary where Klemperer is faster in both the overture and in each aria, sometimes notable faster, as in the overture (5’47 Hungary, 6’54 Covent Garden). Leonore No.3, so controversially included at the time, may well, dissipate the drama for some listeners, but given as it is here with such spontaneity by Klemperer it hardly seems problematical today.

Of the Covent Garden cast only Jon Vickers (Florestan) and Gottlob Frick (Rocco) were used in the studio recording; all rather a pity since the Covent Garden cast is unmatched. Vickers was at the peak of his vocal powers when this 1961 performance was recorded and his singing is everything one could wish for. His Act II aria is the greatest on record: the cry of ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!’ is agonised and stinging. ‘Od’ ist es um mich her’ has a gravity to it which is heart-rending. Frick excels in his spoken dialogue and along with Hans Hotter’s villainous Don Pizarro brings a nobility to the sung German that is mesmerising. Hotter is truly menacing in his Act I aria (Walter Berry on EMI is no match for him), a perfect foil to the Leonore of Jurinac, so intense of voice but so meltingly lyrical with it. None of the Hungarian singers equal these great artists, but what is common to both performances is a commitment and drama that puts them above the ordinary.

Testament’s sound transfer is spacious and atmospheric (the Melodram release always tended towards dryness). The Hungarian transfer suffers from somewhat squally sound and a certain opaqueness here and there but ably captures the electricity of the performance. Reproduction values on the Testament release are of the highest standards: a booklet of essays about the production and performance and a full libretto. The Urania notes are brief but given the fact the opera is sung in Hungarian the absence of a libretto is unfortunate.

The Testament discs are a thrillingly vivid reproduction of a great performance; the Urania discs are invaluable for giving us what was, at the time, a singular interpretation of this opera. Both are indispensable and both confirm that in the case of Fidelio there was no greater interpreter than Otto Klemperer. These recordings, but especially the Covent Garden one, are unlikely to ever be equalled.

Marc Bridle


see also

BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Fidelio. Leonore Overture No. 3. Christa Ludwig (mezzo) Leonore; Jon Vickers (tenor) Florestan; Walter Berry (bass) Don Pizarro; Gottlob Frick (bass) Rocco; Ingeborg Hallstein (soprano) Marzelline; Gerhard Unger (tenor) Jaquino; Franz Crass (bass) Don Fernando; Kurt Wehofschitz (tenor) First Prisoner; Raymond Wolansky (baritone) Second Prisoner; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Otto Klemperer. EMI Great Recordings of the Century CMS5 67364-2 [two discs] [142.52] [ADD] [CC]

If you haven't already heard this performance, this set is an essential purchase.

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