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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio - opera in two acts (1804-05, rev. 1814) [134:42]
Leonore - Martha Mödl (soprano)
Florestan - Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor)
Don Pizarro - Otto Edelmann (bass-baritone)
Rocco - Gottlob Frick (bass)
Marzelline - Sena Jurinac (soprano)
Jacquino - Rudolf Schock (tenor)
Don Fernando - Alfred Poell (baritone)
First Prisoner - “Alwin Hendricks” (Rudolf Schock?) (tenor)
Second Prisoner - Franz Bierbach (baritone)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 13-17 October 1953, Musikvereinsaal, Vienna. Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 095 [71:46 + 62:55]

Like the Toscanini concert version, this recording is in mono, excludes the dialogue except for the Act II melodrama, here very movingly delivered, and inserts the Leonore No.3 overture before the Finale. However, Furtwängler’s interpretation is very different in style from Toscanini's driven account, being much weightier and more considered, bringing out individual instrumental voices. His conception places the emphasis upon the vertical dimension, bringing out what Berlioz called the “chastity” of the score and stressing Leonore’s fervent heroism, whereas Toscanini concentrates on linear drama. This re-mastering on Pristine is particularly welcome in that it allows the excellence of the Vienna Philharmonic to emerge all the more strikingly: the “Leonore” overture is a tour de force: mighty and granitic, making one glad of its inclusion.

The cast, although not the best ever, is as fine as could be assembled in 1953 and this studio recording was made immediately after a live run in Vienna. While that ensures that the performance does not sound studio-bound it would also account for the fact that Mödl sometimes appears rather tired and strained, finding difficulty in centring and sustaining her tone and negotiating a good few moments of hoarseness. Her voice was always cloudy - even strange at times - and there is a fair amount of unsteadiness, scooping and too much of the gulping, glottal attack which could mar her singing. That said, she is also highly involved, creating real electricity every time she opens her mouth. The incredibly demanding "O namenlose Freude!" is intensely dramatic and she hits a whopping, nervy top B in "Abscheulicher". Jurinac's Marzelline is rather staid and matronly but beautifully sung. Her Jacquino is robustly sung by Rudolf Schock who sounds as if he could make a stab at Florestan. Frick gives us his near ideal Rocco: a warm, simple old soul with the blackest of basses. Otto Edelmann's Pizarro is a conventional villain of no special distinction and a tendency to distort both the vowels and his vocal production in order to hit top notes. Alfred Poell is a surprisingly firm and effective Don Fernando.

Furtwängler's handling of the introduction to Act 2 is massive and portentous, the orchestra playing with wonderfully full, burnished tone. Windgassen was never quite the echt heldentenor in my judgement but here he is young and sappier of voice than in later years. His Florestan is very sympathetic and smooth-voiced, less heroic than is ideal but indubitably up to the music. He successfully suggests a man who is both mentally and physically exhausted without sounding vocally weak. That doesn’t stop me wishing that he hadn’t ducked the expressive challenge provided by the long melismata on “Leiden” in the introduction to his big aria - an effect that Vickers makes so moving. His conductor is considerate to him and his monologue becomes almost a melancholy meditation at a pace considerably slower than is customary.
There have been many previous bargain issues of this classic recording including an excellent one on Zyx. If you already own that, I wouldn’t necessarily urge you to exchange it for this Pristine re-mastering. The sound was always more than acceptable for a clean mono recording from 1953 but there is no doubt that Andrew Rose has worked his usual magic by giving us a cleaned-up issue in “Ambient Stereo”. Jurinac’s voice emerges with greater purity, Mödl has more catch and resin in her tone and there is more depth in the bass frequencies. The absence of dialogue is a grievous omission and in the long run this cannot be preferred over the classic Klemperer set with Ludwig and Vickers. It remains however a mighty testament to a great conductor’s vision of this stand-alone opera.
One curiosity as a foot-note: Andrew Rose in his notes remarks that for this recording Hermann Gallos was replaced as First Prisoner by one “Alwin Hendricks”. I am happy to be proved wrong, but whereas the Second Prisoner is sung by Franz Bierbach, who has a discography and sang regularly in Germany during at that time, there is no record otherwise of any such singer. My ears suggest to me that we are hearing Rudolf Schock doubling up in the role under a pseudonym. Such little deceptions are hardly unprecedented: Nicola Zaccaria sang a firm-voiced mandarin under the sobriquet “Giulio Mauri” in the Callas “Turandot” in order to allow an inadequate or indisposed fellow-singer still to be paid.  

Ralph Moore