Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio, Op. 72 [115:02]
Leonore – Nina Stemme (soprano)
Florestan – Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Rocco – Christof Fischesser (bass)
Don Pizarro – Falk Struckmann (baritone)
Marzelline – Rachel Harmisch (soprano)
Jaquino – Christoph Strehl (tenor)
Don Fernando – Peter Mattei (baritone)
First Prisoner – Juan Sebastian Acosta (tenor)
Second Prisoner – Levente Pall (baritone)
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, in concerts, 12, 15 August, 2010, Kultur- und Kongresszentrum, Lucerne, Switzerland. DDD
German text and English and French translations included
DECCA 478 2551 [68:37 + 46:25]
There was a time when Decca and the other major record labels
would issue important new opera recordings almost every month.
How long ago those days now seem! A new opera issue from Decca
is therefore unusual but this new Fidelio is of such
quality that it’s a major event in itself.
The recording is taken from two concert performances at the
2010 Lucerne Festival. One great benefit of that is that we
have on the podium Claudio Abbado, surely one of the fairly
few conductors currently active who justifies the use of the
adjective ‘great’. In the pit is a band made up from members
of two stellar, hand-picked – and interwoven - orchestras, the
Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
I should say straightaway that the orchestral playing in this
recording is of uncommon distinction.
The cast, which hasn’t a weak link, is dominated by two exciting
singers. The Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whose recording credits
include Isolde in EMI’s Tristan (review)
is a wonderful Leonore while the German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann,
who impresses me hugely every time I hear him, excels as Florestan
We have to wait until Act II to hear Kaufmann but when we do
hear him, what an impact he makes! At the very start of ‘Gott!
Welch Dunkel hier!’ he starts the word ‘Gott!’ almost inaudibly
and expands the sound to forte through a long and meticulously
controlled crescendo. Without access to a score I can’t say
if this is authentic; it’s a very different approach to the
loud cry with which Jon Vickers (for Klemperer) utters the word
but Kaufmann’s approach is just as effective – arguably more
so – as an anguished cry of despair. It’s an arresting moment.
He goes on to give a formidable account of the aria ‘In des
Lebens Frühlingstagen’, deploying a flawless technique and delivering
an emotionally charged reading. Just before ‘Und spür’ ich nicht
linde, sanft säuseinde Luft?’ the stage direction translates
in the booklet as “with a calm rapture, which nevertheless verges
on madness”. To my ears, Kaufmann follows this dictum splendidly
in the passage that follows.
As Leonore, Nina Stemme has a much longer role to sing. Her
voice seems very well suited to the part. She has a gleaming
top and yet there’s also roundness and body in the lower register
of the voice, enough to remind us that several mezzos have been
notable exponents of the role. ‘Abscheulicher!’ is powerfully
projected and then ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ is movingly sung as she
convincingly portrays Leonora’s fears and courage. Later, in
Act II she’s magnificent in the confrontation trio with Florestan
As I said, there isn’t a weak link in the cast. Falk Struckmann
is a menacing, sinister Pizarro, though sometimes the vibrato
he deploys may be a little too much for some tastes. He conveys
his menace without recourse to any excessive histrionics; with
a stage presence such as this it’s no surprise that Rocco is
in thrall to him. As Rocco, Christof Fischesser is very convincing
as a fundamentally decent man obliged through fear to obey Pizarro.
Rachel Harmisch excels as Rocco’s daughter. She’s a very fine
Marzelline; her opening scene opposite Christoph Strehl’s Jaquino
is very well done by both singers. Towards the end of the opera
Peter Mattei gives a dignified portrayal of Don Fernando.
The men of the Arnold Schoenberg Chor deliver a superb Prisoners’
Chorus. Their hushed singing at the start makes a tremendous
impression. They are really believable as men coming out into
the light with a mixture of delight and trepidation. The tenor
section is particularly impressive, as it is when the full choir
is deployed for the finale.
I mentioned the orchestral playing near the start of the review.
It’s absolutely marvellous. A dramatic and finely shaped account
of the overture sets the tone for the playing that’s to follow.
Under Abbado’s wise and inspiring direction the playing is full
of life and there’s conspicuous attention to detail. The horns
and woodwind give particular pleasure but the whole band is
magnificent. Unlike some conductors, Abbado does not interpolate
the Leonora No 3 overture into Act II. That’s absolutely
the right decision in the context of this performance but with
an orchestra of this calibre on hand to play it one feels a
tiny bit of regret for what might have been. The hushed orchestral
introduction to the Prisoners’ Chorus is breathtaking, establishing
a real tension, which the singers then take over. And then again
at the end of Act I the quiet ending is superbly delivered by
this first rate orchestra. As Act II opens they are inspired
by Abbado to suggest the oppressive surroundings of the dungeon
Abbado’s direction seems to me to be flawless. He has the surest
possible feel for the drama; the pacing is consistently ideal.
Although he ensures that all the detail is brought out you never
feel this is at the expense of the flow of the music; he always
has the Big Picture in view. Coordination between pit and stage
is excellent at all times. In short this is conducting of the
very highest order.
There are several highlights in the opera, to which I’ve referred
above. However, one passage caught my ear so firmly that when
I first played through the set I stopped the disc and repeated
the passage immediately. It’s the section near the end of Act
II, immediately following Leonora’s ‘O Gott! - Welch ein Augenblick’
and Florestan’s response ‘O unaussprechlich süsses Glück!’ –
both lines movingly delivered. Then comes the short, subdued
ensemble (Track 8, 6:34 – 9:40), a stroke of genius on Beethoven’s
part as the singers express rapt joy. The quiet dynamics and
the wonderfully lyrical writing, not least in the orchestra,
make this a profound and affecting passage. It is superbly conducted
by Abbado and marvellously sung and played - all very moving.
It’s an ideal demonstration of the high pedigree of this recording.
The jubilant final pages, with Kaufmann in ringing voice, are
all the more effective as a result of the way that this preceding
passage has been handled.
This magnificent performance has been captured in first-rate
sound by Decca. Because it’s a concert performance there are
no distracting stage noises. Furthermore, I could detect no
audience noise at all, even when listening through headphones.
There’s no applause.
With magnificent singing and playing and a great conductor on
the podium this set is a winner. I’ve a great admiration for
both of Klemperer’s recordings – the studio traversal (EMI -
and the live Covent Garden version (Testament). However, I’ve
never felt so drawn in to Beethoven’s drama before, nor so convinced
by it. The arrival of this Fidelio in the catalogue is
an event of major importance and surely this will be one of
the most important releases of 2011. I urge you to hear it.