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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio. Opera in Two Acts
Leonore, Kirsten Flagstad (sop); Florestan, René Maison (ten); Rocco, Alexander Kipnis (bass); Pizarro, Julius Huehn (bar); Marzelline, Marita Farell, (sop); Jaquino, Karl Laufkoetter, (ten); Don Fernando, Herbert Janssen (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Bruno Walter
Rec. from live broadcast on February 22nd 1941

This performance has previously been available on ‘Music and Arts’ and ‘Naxos Historical’ labels, the latter deriving from Immortal Performance Recorded Music Society sources, as does this Guild issue. In his ‘Recording Notes’ (p.22 of the booklet) restorer Richard Caniell mentions that he has obtained ‘a source that out-classed all other versions (including our previous master) for sonic size and silent surfaces. This discovery justified new restoration work and the Guild release on CD’.

Collectors will be aware of Mr Caniell’s philosophy for these Guild issues. It involves no filtering, compression, limiting or any other digital intervention. I have not, however, been in a position to carry out a direct comparison with the issues on the labels referred to. I must therefore limit myself to commenting that this 2003 restoration has good clarity, silent surfaces and a wider dynamic than many recordings derived from Met broadcasts of that period. The solo voices and chorus are particularly well caught in terms of tone and body.

The popularity of this performance among collectors is owed to the presence of Kirsten Flagstad as Leonore and Bruno Walter on the podium. Three broadcasts of Flagstad’s portrayal are available, the earliest dating from 1936 which is in poor sound. However, the 1938 New Year’s Eve performance is sonically acceptable and is felt by some to better represent Flagstad’s portrayal than this 1941 version; a view Caniell disputes (p.7). Purists rule out the 1938 performance because the conductor, Bodansky, substituted his own recitatives for the spoken dialogue, as had Berlioz and Balfe a century earlier. The practice died with Bodansky.

Leonore was reputed to be one of Kirsten Flagstad’s favourites. Her silvery tone and infinite capacity for vocal weight throughout the register, without tonal deterioration, is ideal for a role that has also drawn mezzos with a good top. In this she joins Christa Ludwig for Klemperer (EMI ‘GROC’) and Jessye Norman for Haitink (Philips), the latter version marred by Reiner Goldberg’s poor rendering of Florestan. Despite her good top, Flagstad’s ‘Abscheulicher’, an aria which can tax mezzos, is not as secure at its climax (CD 1, tr.18, 7:22) as I would have expected. Nevertheless the audience show their appreciation. The Belgian tenor René Maison was, to the chagrin of Melchior enthusiasts, Flagstad’s regular partner at the Met. More a dramatic tenor than a ‘heldentenor’, his weight of voice should have been ideal for the role of Florestan. However, here he has moments of raw and throaty tone and in his aria he is far too frenetic (CD2 tr.11). As the gaoler Rocco, Alexander Kipnis is too authoritative in his dialogue (CD1 tr.3). This spills over into the following quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ (tr. 4) which makes his jolly, rather than persuasive, ‘Hat man nicht’ (tr. 9) sound rather incongruous. However, the stable tone and good diction he brings to the role are welcome. The Pizarro of Julius Huehn is steady and suitably threatening although as with his Friedrich on Guild’s recent issue of the 1940 broadcast ‘Lohengrin’ I find his voice lacks sap. As the young suitor Jaquino, Karl Laufkoetter is adequate though without much grace in his tone. The Marzelline of Marita Farell (a role she also assumed in the 1938 performance) is too full-toned for my ideal. I much prefer a lighter and more flexible voice for what we understand is a young girl.

As for Bruno Walter, his reading is dramatic but at times over-driven and is in no way more distinguished than Bodansky, although I like his shaping of the Leonore No. 3 (CD2 tr.9). There are minor cuts in the music and dialogue. All in all I do not find the distinction in Kirsten Flagstad’s performance is such as to justify the reputation of this performance to many collectors. However, for those who take a contrary view and are drawn to her voice and Walter’s interpretation, the recording here is one of the finest I have heard from this period. The booklet has good essays by Richard Caniell including Flagstad’s performances as Leonore at the Met, and a track-related synopsis.

Robert J Farr

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