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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (1814) [110:00]
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
rec. in concert, Philharmonie, Berlin, 25-28 April 2003
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 2176302 [65:58 + 44:17]

 

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Rattle’s 2003 Fidelio arrives on super-budget EMI Gemini. It’s worth a listen, but in view of the competition it remains, for me, a deeply disappointing realisation of this remarkable score.

Rattle himself shapes the score in his own characteristically unique manner. He is famous for shedding new light on well known works, but here his decisions strike me as often distracting or just wrong. The pauses after the tutti passages at the beginning and end of the overture feel interminable, and his tempi frequently seem wilful and strange. The Act 1 quartet moves so quickly as to prevent any sense of transcendence, and the introduction to the final scene fairly gallops along so that the grandeur and triumph are diluted. The prisoners are put away very quickly indeed at the end of Act 1, while O Namenlose Freude lumbers along heavily. Even though this recording is patched together from live concert performances there is little of the excitement of a live event here, and Rattle doesn’t generate the spark and spontaneity that we know him to be capable of.

He isn’t helped by a generally over-parted cast of singers. As Leonore Angela Denoke starts well in the quartet, but she finds the gamut of emotions in Abscheulicher a challenge, and her voice shows worrying emptiness at the top. The most unfortunate incidence of this occurs at the very climactic moment of the opera because she has to struggle up to Tot erst sein Weib. Equally, her reunion duet with Florestan never really takes off, though she rallies for the moment where she removes the chains. Jon Villars captures the agony of Florestan’s first gasp in Act 2, but he too is challenged by the writing, sounding altogether insecure during his first aria, In des Lebens Fruhlinigstagen. He shows all too little of the heroic grandeur evinced by Jon Vickers in his sets for Klemperer and Karajan, or Kollo for Bernstein. Laszlo Polgar sounds much too elderly as Rocco, and I doubt that that’s intentional characterisation. The money aria sounds good, though his contributions to Act 2 feel like plodding through the notes with little sense of drama. Rainer Trost is a distinguished Jaquino, though Juliane Banse sounds much too shrill as Marzelline, threatening the unity of the quartet. Thomas Quasthoff is unbelievably bland as Don Fernando! His appearance in Act 2 is in no way declamatory – instead it is almost apologetic – and he is quickly subsumed into the general sound of the finale. He carries little authority in his role, most disappointing from an artist of his stature - one can only put it down to an off night. The most successful assumption in the set is Alan Held’s Pizarro. He easily dominates the scene when he appears in Act 1, and his first aria is marvellously bloodthirsty. He sounds ghoulishly suggestive when he insinuates his plans to Rocco in their subsequent duet and he is enveloped in rage when his plans are thwarted in Act 2. Obviously, however, no-one buys a recording of Fidelio for Jaquino and Pizarro, and the fact that their contributions stand out so clearly damns the rest of the cast with faint praise indeed.

The recording quality is very good, and there are no extraneous noises or audience coughs at all, so one would automatically assume that this was a studio recording. There is a very obvious edit between the removal of Don Pizarro and Fernando’s order that Leonore remove the chains, but this is a small blemish.

Technically, then, this recording might sound good, but musically it’s too uneven. The solo singing is broadly undistinguished, and Rattle’s bizarre handle on the score doesn’t help it. The worst thing for this set is the extraordinarily strong competition. Bernstein’s Vienna recording (DG) with Janowitz and Kollo provides the most viscerally thrilling experience one could imagine: unlike Rattle, it’s hard to imagine that his reading wasn’t caught live. Karajan finds an affirmative inevitability in the story of redemption and progress, which his singers (Dernesch and Vickers) support whole-heartedly. Still reigning supreme, however, is Klemperer’s unmatched vision of this transcendent masterwork. He has the strongest team of soloists imaginable, and the Philharmonia play like gods for him. Walter Legge’s sound is still magnificent nearly fifty years later. Next to such mastery, Rattle cannot compete.

Simon Thompson

 





 


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