Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio - Opera in two Acts [111:08]
(inc. Leonore III, track 9, CD 2)
Leonore - Rose Bampton (soprano); Pizarro - Herbert Janssen (baritone); Florestan - Jan Peerce (tenor); Don Fernando - Nicola Moscona (bass); Marzelline - Eleanor Steber (soprano); Jaquino - Joseph Laderoute (tenor); Rocco - Sidor Belarsky (bass)
NBC Orchestra and Chorus/Arturo Toscanini.
rec. live 10, 17 December 1944 and 14 June 1945 (Abscheulicher aria), Carnegie Hall, New York City
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 077 [57:33 + 53:36]
This famous recording derives from broadcasts of an Act on each of two successive Saturdays. It is compromised by the absence of dialogue, an abridgement made in order to fit each Act into the hour’s transmission time available. As such it must be regarded as a concert performance. That said, it is propelled from start to finish by an overwhelming sense of drama and urgency. Toscanini’s drive is the very embodiment of Beethoven’s burning outrage at the oppression of liberty by a totalitarian regime. Remember, this broadcast took place in 1944 and seems to be Toscanini’s daring and deliberate assertion that the integrity of this German opera, sung not in translation but in the language of the “enemy”, transcends that current state of enmity. Yet he is not all fire and dynamism; he is equally capable of relaxing to express the composer’s idealisation of a conjugal love he himself never enjoyed.
The mono sound is clean and clear and now considerably enhanced by Pristine’s XR re-mastering which has, as always, reduced hiss and equalised pitch variations. It has also, in particular created more “air and space” around the voices which were always prominent. The instrumental detail was always good and can only sound better in this re-mastering: just listen to the menace of the growling bassoons and double basses in the duet “Nur hurtig fort” in the grave-digging scene.
Toscanini immediately creates a special sense of tension and expectation in the Overture as the strings intone a crescendo on the pulsing two-note figure on a sixth before the entry of the Big Tune on the horns. Similarly the orchestral introduction to Act 2 is electric with its depiction of Florestan’s desperate suffering. Time and again the listener is struck by the sheer, visceral directness of Toscanini’s phrasing: he pierces the emotional heart of the music without self-conscious artifice or sentimentality. Yet the same conductor who pushes the music on with almost manic intensity in the interpolated Leonore No.3 Overture is equally capable of encompassing the tender poise of the Quartet or the poignancy of the Prisoners’ Chorus.
Much the same may be said of the singing here. In my estimation, both principals continue to be under-rated. Other singers have made more of a meal of Florestan’s great aria but Jan Peerce’s virile, slightly nasal tenor is vibrant with passion - and he makes light of this incredibly difficult music, singing all the notes dead on pitch. Rose Bampton is similarly adept: her big, pure, gleaming dramatic soprano is wholly secure. I say this even if she did have to re-record Abscheulicher the following April owing to a slip in the live performance. It’s a treat to hear her and Peerce conquer the fiendishly demanding “O namenlose Freude”. Bampton’s really was an extraordinary voice: her top Bs shine and the depth and security of her mezzo register may be inferred from the deep timbre of speaking voice in the few snippets of dialogue we are allowed. She is not as animated as some exponents of this role but in pure vocal terms she is amongst the best. Apparently at Toscanini’s insistence and as if to compensate for the absence of dialogue the sung text is very clearly enunciated by both the soloists and the somewhat rough and ready chorus.
A young Eleanor Steber is a stand-out as Marzelline: sweet, strong and animated. She is ably partnered by a neat-voiced tenor previously unknown to me: Joseph Laderoute as Jaquino. Stalwart bass and Toscanini favourite Nicola Moscona is strong as Don Fernando. Neither the Rocco nor the Pizarro is ideal: bass Sidor Belarsky is ordinary of voice and his German is unidiomatic. Don’t expect the kind of impact in this role made by singers of the calibre of Gottlob Frick or Kurt Moll but Belarsky makes Rocco an amiable old buffer. Veteran Herbert Janssen is too light of voice and civilised of manner to be a truly chilling Pizarro but he brings some intensity to his characterisation with the voice he has and does not let the side down. Certainly his native German is an asset.
This is a very different experience from the stately grandeur of Furtwängler or the spiritual concentration of Klemperer. It is, however, wholly convincing in its own terms: a tour de force and very much more than the sum of its parts.  

Ralph Moore 

Wholly convincing. A tour de force.