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Beethoven’s Fidelio - a survey of the discography
By Ralph Moore

I postponed considering recordings of Fidelio until a friend urged me to return to it for two reasons: first - spoiler alert - I included the classic, 1962 Klemperer recording in my “untouchables” survey and have still not discovered anything since to rival it; secondly, there are frankly really far too many poor-to-mediocre recordings of Beethoven’s sole operatic masterpiece, and the thought of trawling through them for the purposes of this survey was not a joyful prospect. I did, however, uncover several which at least approach the standard of Klemperer’s; there is also the consideration that for some his manner is too slow, heavy and “Germanic” – although I hardly see how that is possible given that, despite the relatively light-hearted opening scene in which Marzelline resists Jaquino’s wooing, it quickly morphs into the most serious, idealistic and morally high-minded of works, embracing and demonstrating some of Beethoven’s most dearly held beliefs. Nonetheless, despite its prevailing gravitas, the opening scene and spoken dialogue lend the opera an element of Singspiel, and we might recall that it evolved from an original commission by Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart’s collaborator on The Magic Flute and founder of the Theater an der Wien, where it was premiered. Furthermore, the reason why Beethoven eventually replaced the grand, symphonic overture now known as Leonore No. 3 with the shorter Fidelio overture now always played was that its portentousness seemed incongruous with the mild comedy of that opening scene. He evidently had difficulty both with reconciling those disparate moods and the form itself and the composition of the opera gave him no end of trouble; despite the constant revisions, he was never content with it and he never returned to the genre, eventually finding the liturgical mode of the Missa solemnis and the finale of the Ninth Symphony more congenial to both his genius and his philosophy.

The plot of Fidelio, despite being supposedly based on real events in the French Revolution, like too many operas, borders on the risible, but its appeal endures as, while on one hand it asserts the supremacy of love as a sovereign antidote to evil, its humanistic insistence upon the sovereign right of political freedom and the importance of courage in the face of oppression as embodied by a powerful and determined woman speak as strongly to a modern audience today as its revolutionary fervour no doubt excited and perhaps even disturbed its first audiences. Its values espouse the composer’s philosophical and spiritual convictions; Beethoven’s attachment to the ideals of the French Revolution before they were inverted by tyranny had been demonstrated the year previous to his beginning work on his opera when, upon Napoleon declaring himself emperor, he had furiously destroyed the title page of the Eroica manuscript bearing the dedication to Bonaparte as First Consul. However, Fidelio is neither overtly political nor explicitly “feminist”, in that the Leonore’s husband is as much a “freedom fighter” as his wife, nor is he a common man but a member of the Spanish nobility, just as Don Fernando, the deus ex machina who saves the day is also an aristocrat and a king’s minister, so this is not a simple matter of the proletariat rising up against the ruling class.

As important to Beethoven as the political message was the idea of conjugal love as the agency for freedom – a rather poignantly, given his unsuccessful search for it himself throughout his life. The opera’s original subtitle, “Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe” (Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love) reinforces the message that love in all its forms must prevail is echoed in the sung finale of the Choral Symphony: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All men become brothers). In his notes for the 1950 Salzburg production, Furtwängler wrote that "Fidelio is a Mass, not an opera – its emotions touch the borders of religion” and some critics have invested the work with religious significance, adducing examples such as how Florestan is “resurrected” having been given bread and wine. The most successful recordings and performances certainly emphasise that spiritual dimension, as to play Fidelio as a melodrama merely emphasises the hokeyness of its plot. The orchestral introduction to Florestan’s great aria of lament is surely one of the most profound, original and atmospheric passages of music Beethoven ever wrote and needs the most subtle, flexible and sensitive treatment by the conductor.

The casting of Leonore/Fidelio can be problematic; if the lead singer is to be credible in the “trouser-role” of Fidelio she needs to have a certain toughness of voice and demeanour and too light or feminine a demeanour compromises any credibility. I much prefer a mezzo-soprano or a dramatic soprano as Leonora and several recordings feature excellent but miscast singers.

I also dislike it when the German dialogue is abridged or even replaced with a narrative; there isn’t enough of it to weary anyone other than the most impatient non-German speaker, it is necessary to move the plot along, adds considerably both to characterisation and drama, and includes several really arresting and touching moments. Non-native-German-speaking singers are understandably reluctant to attempt it but trying to resolve that issue via the use of actors often creates a different, problem of vocal mismatch. I prefer to hear the singers do it, even if their German accents are not perfect.

I have included one recording of the original 1805 Leonore, to be considered only as a supplement, as it makes a fascinating contrast to the final, heavily revised work. Otherwise, I have included almost all the studio recordings, omitting only a few older and/or inferior accounts, reviewing a total of twenty-three. Only three display any cognizance of so-called period practice: Mackerras, Abbado and possibly the most recent from Janowski – although the latter’s brisk speeds alone are hardly sufficient to indicate period awareness; by that reckoning, Fricsay back in 1957 is just as HIP, and I am disinclined to value any such factor over dramatic impact.

The Recordings:
 
Bruno Walter - 1941(live radio broadcast; mono) Arkadia; Naxos; Guild Immortal Performances
Orchestra & Chorus - Metropolitan Opera
Leonore - Kirsten Flagstad
Florestan - René Maison
Pizarro - Julius Huehn
Rocco - Alexander Kipnis
Marzelline - Marita Farell
Jaquino - Karl Laufkötter
Fernando - Herbert Janssen
Erster Gefangene - Emery Darcy
Zweiter Gefangene - John Gurney

Excellent, very immediate and virtually undistorted radio broadcast sound excuses this from being classed as “historical” – and coughing is minimal.

Walter’s approach is much closer to Toscanini’s than Furtwängler, being taut, and very fast. Orchestral textures are so transparent, with especially prominent timpani, that even minor blips are apparent but also details emerge which can be obscured even in modern recordings. Nonetheless, Walter pulls right back for some of the contemplative moments such as the quartet, so this is by no means all propulsion. The Prisoners’ Chorus, however, is surely taken too briskly, missing the yearning quality, First Prisoner but Emery Darcy delivers an especially impassioned arioso and Walter’s paciness is certainly suggestive of desperation, I suppose. The introduction to Act 2 unfolds in masterly fashion, and, as was the custom, Walter conducts Leonore No. 3 as an Act 2 interlude, with all the brio, variety and intensity one would expect of a specialist in Beethoven’s symphonies.

Unfortunately, while his Marzelline is pretty, the Jaquino here isn’t especially attractively-voiced or characterful compared with the finest in those roles; he sounds amateur and too often barks and croons, but Walter’s bouncy tempi carries the scene. Kipnis is a wonderfully rich-voiced Rocco, sounding more youthful than usual. Flagstad’s appearance on stage is greeted with a round of applause; unsurprisingly, she sounds rather more youthful, lighter and more agile than for Furtwängler six years later but I find the later performance to be more deeply felt. Julius Huehn sings competently but does not have the most penetrating of baritones, so Pizzaro’s nastiness does not really cut through. René Maison has the requisite heroic heft for Florestan even if his timbre sometimes turns plaintive and sometimes his line sags or beaks up as he over-emphasises phrases, losing tone; he is also rhythmically erratic, overacts in the dialogue and his German isn’t idiomatic – so he is not by any means my favourite in this role. Herbert Janssen is an adequate but rather faceless Don Fernando, lacking low notes.

In the end, this is a compelling performance but vocally still a mixed bag.

Karl Böhm – 1944 (studio; mono) Preiser; Cantus Classics
Orchestra & Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Leonore - Hilde Konetzni
Florestan - Torsten Ralf
Pizarro - Paul Schöffler
Rocco - Herbert Alsen
Marzelline - Irmgard Seefried
Jaquino - Peter Klein
Fernando - Tomislav Neralic
Erster Gefangene - Hermann Gallos
Zweiter Gefangene - Hans Schweiger

While I am not proposing this as an overall first recommendation, as with so many of these Austro-German wartime recordings, made on the technologically advanced medium for its day of metal tape, the sound here is so good and the cast so distinguished as to merit its serious consideration as a historical supplement. I appreciate that some listeners find it difficult to dissociate the historical background and supposed sympathies of the participants from its artistic merits, and the ironic spectacle of an opera celebrating freedom conducted by an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism is hardly edifying, but viewed dispassionately, this is a still fine account.

Beethoven is well served here: the orchestral playing is crisp and Böhm’s attack is fierce. His judgement is unerring; for example, he takes the quartet slowly and meditatively, so it comes off very well, and the Prisoners’ Chorus is the moving highlight it should be, but he is just as capable of whipping up excitement and there is plenty of mystery and menace in the dungeon scenes. As a bonus, we are given Leonore No. 3 as an interlude between the two scenes of Act 2.

A young Irmgard Seefried makes a fleet, charming, full-voiced Marzelline and her first aria is a delight. Her Jaquino has a strange, squeezed “Mime-voice” which makes him sound like her elderly uncle but he sings neatly. Herbert Ahlsen has a sonorous, slightly cumbersome but rotund bass and the occasional pulse in Konetzni’s ample soprano might bother some listeners but I do not find it obtrusive. She sings “Abscheulicher!” both tenderly and passionately and the orchestral accompaniment, especially from the horns, is beautiful, although her sliding up to a slightly flat top note is unfortunate. Torsten Ralf’s vibrant, metallic tenor cuts through the orchestra stirringly; his is not an especially subtle or even very moving performance but it’s vocally impressive. The dialogue, being delivered by native speakers - with the exception of the Swedish Ralf - is crystal clear.

This is a thoroughly estimable recording by a splendid ensemble, expertly conducted. It isn’t vocally flawless but exudes a properly authentic Beethovenian spirit.

Arturo Toscanini - 1944-45 (live radio broadcasts; mono) RCA; Arkadia; Immortal Performances; Pristine Audio
Orchestra - NBC Symphony Orchestra
Chorus - CHORUS
Leonore - Rose Bampton
Florestan - Jan Peerce
Pizarro - Herbert Janssen
Rocco - Sidor Belarsky
Marzelline - Eleanor Steber
Jaquino - Joseph Laderoute
Fernando - Nicola Moscona

I reviewed this back in 2012:

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 and must as such be regarded as a concert performance, but 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. It's fine in this issue but you can also buy it in the Pristine label, considerably enhanced by Pristine's XR remastering which has, as always, reduced hiss, equalised pitch variations and 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 that remastering: 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 Florestan's desperate suffering. Time and again the listener 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 - even if she did have to re-record "Abscheulicher" the following April owing to a slip in the live performance - and it's a treat to hear her and Peerce conquer the fiendishly demanding "O namenlose Freude". Bampton's really was an extraordinary voice: 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 and her top Bs shine. 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, so 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 really 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 but is wholly convincing on its own terms as a tour de force and is very much more than the sum of its parts.

Wilhelm Furtwängler – 1950 (live; mono) EMI; Regis; Cantus Classics; Arkadia; Aura Classics
Wiener Philharmoniker; Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Leonore - Kirsten Flagstad
Florestan - Julius Patzak
Pizarro - Paul Schöffler
Rocco - Josef Greindl
Marzelline - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Jaquino - Anton Dermota
Fernando - Hans Braun
Erster Gefangene - Hermann Gallos
Zweiter Gefangene - Ljubomir Pantscheff

A cast like this under no less a conductor than Furtwängler makes it impossible to ignore; even if the sound is live, vintage mono, it is hardly inferior to the studio recording three years later and is certainly good enough to allow the listener to hear immediately how the conductor imparts the same special combination of massive dignity and excitement to the score that we hear in the studio version, reviewed next. The orchestral playing is wonderfully subtle, responding willingly to Furtwängler’s flexible beat and the sense of rapport amongst conductor, singers and instrumentalists is strong.

Jaquino is role often undercast, so it’s a treat to hear the elegant and distinctive Dermota sing it. He is aptly partnered by Schwarzkopf in a role which suited her delicate, warbling manner – and what can sometimes come across as arch in her is here ideal for the feisty Marzelline. Greindl is a black-voiced Rocco, genial and likeable, if a bit wobbly. Flagstad of course now sounds more mature than she did for Walter but that lends a greater contrast with Schwarzkopf and makes her sound more masculine. She is huge of voice and only occasionally a touch scratchy-toned. Her Leonore is very different from, say, Ludwig’s, being much more stately and even marmoreal but the sheer, massive grandeur of her singing carries the day and her voice rings out so bravely, intact throughout its range. Schöffler is thoroughly nasty and still steady enough, even if his top notes are wearing thin. The First and Second Prisoners sing tenderly and movingly, reinforcing the vertical dimension of Furtwängler’s direction. As was the welcome custom then, we get the Leonore No. 3 overture as an interlude, too – thrillingly executed. Hans Braun’s Don Fernando is authoritative.

The roster of highly satisfactory soloists is completed by Julius Patzak. It might be thought that he lacked the power to do justice to the role of Florestan, but he began his career singing Radames and had the knack of knowing how to deploy his resources cunningly; certainly, he delivers his opening, top G “Gott!” differently from every other tenor who has sung it. Rather than hold and swell it into a roar of anguish like Vickers or Kaufmann, Patzak starts softly, retaining much more falsetto in his vocal mix, then cuts it off sharply to give the note a plaintive quality which is arresting; it certainly suggests the despair of a man made weak by deprivation and imprisonment and no other tenor depicts Florestan so vividly, or with such beautiful tone, even if I still admire a more robust approach. However, it is only fair to observe that he is audibly struggling and straining on the repeated B flats at the close of his big aria, beginning “Ein Engel Leonoren”, where more robustly vocally endowed tenors such as Vickers dominate the music by sheer force of will.

Unlike the studio recording, the dialogue is complete, another advantage.
 
Wilhelm Furtwängler – 1953 (studio; mono/ambient stereo*) EMI; Naxos; Zyx; Pristine Audio*
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker; Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Leonore - Martha Mödl
Florestan - Wolfgang Windgassen
Pizarro - Otto Edelmann
Rocco - Gottlob Frick
Marzelline - Sena Jurinac
Jaquino - Rudolf Schock
Fernando - Alfred Poell
Erster Gefangene - Alwin Hendriks
Zweiter Gefangene - Franz Bierbach

I reviewed this in 2013:

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 quite a 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 Jaquino 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.

Ferenc Fricsay – 1957 (studio; stereo) DG
Orchestra - Bayerisches Staatsorchester
Chorus - Bayerische Staatsoper
Leonore - Leonie Rysanek
Florestan - Ernst Haefliger
Pizarro - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Rocco - Gottlob Frick
Marzelline - Irmgard Seefried
Jaquino - Friedrich Lenz
Fernando - Keith Engen

This is a typically sharp, crisp account from Fricsay in good late 50’s stereo with as good a Germanic cast as could be assembled at that time; the five principal singers are all justly celebrated.

I listened to this having just heard Knappertsbusch’s almost contemporaneous studio recording and the contrast between them, right from the snappy, fiery overture here, could not be more marked, yet it also reminded me that there is no one way to do this music and I like both, even if it is easier to respond to Fricsay’s invigorating manner. He drives the Bavarian orchestra like a racing car and the momentum of the recording is thrilling – or frantic, depending on how wedded you are to Klemperer’s or Knappertsbusch’s more ponderous approach. I have seen his direction described elsewhere as “incandescent” and I am inclined to agree, as both the orchestra and chorus pick up on his enthusiasm and really pin back our ears. The almost whispered recitative in the Prisoners’ Chorus is especially chilling and poignant; it is not performed that way in any other recording I know and while the orchestra hasn’t quite the sumptuous tone of either the Philharmonia or the BPO, and there is occasionally some out-of-tune string playing, it is generally highly responsive and the inclusion of Leonore No. 3 is a real bonus, given the conductor’s gifts.

The Jaquino has one of those harmless, inconsequential and minor voices with which some producers think will do for the role but the substitution of a “proper tenor” for a weak comprimario pays dividends and I could wish for better. Never mind; Seefried repeats the bewitching Marzelline she gave Böhm back in 1944 and Gottlob Frick delivers a performance of Rocco virtually identical to that on the classic Klemperer recording a few years later – in many ways ideal both vocally and dramatically; he really makes the old rogue come alive.

Leonie Rysanek has the right smoky timbre and weight for Leonore; she has a true dramatic soprano, properly distinguished from the Marzelline. Her intonation can waver a bit but the way she colours her voice to characterise Leonore is deeply felt, and vocally she is fully in command of the range and demands of “Abscheulicher!”

Regular readers of my surveys and reviews will know that I am not invariably a fan of Fischer-Dieskau but I find him to be an excellent Pizzaro here, even if his voice lacks the weight and low notes of, say, Walter Berry. He is suitably malevolent and intense – one of his best recorded performances. Keith Engen makes a firm, resonant Don Fernando – too often his brief but crucial intervention is inadequately cast.

The potential pitfall here was the casting of the essentially lyric tenor of Ernst Haefliger, better known as a baroque or Mozartian singer. Of course, in some ways, despite its age, this recording with its fleet tempi and lighter textures, chimes with the more modern, “period” practice we hear in Mackerras’ recording below, so a lighter-voiced Florestan makes sense. There is certainly no lack of intensity to the orchestral introduction to his entrance “aria” (surely an inappropriate word for his outpouring of grief and despair) and Haefliger’s delivery of “Gott!”, from a gentle falsetto start, then swelled, is masterly. His voice could be thought essentially too sweet but that adds poignancy to Florestan’s plight and there is no lack of power in his “Ein Engel, Leonoren” passage, even if his tone there is a little squeezed.

If you want the dialogue, be careful which version you buy; abridged downloads without it are available online – one even in mono, although I don’t know why – so get the original DG issue. Unfortunately, even there, and even though the singers are almost all native German speakers, actors are used for it and I can never understand why, as there is virtually always a jarring mismatch as per here between the singers’ and speakers’ voices, especially as the singers themselves deliver the sung recitative sections. The incongruity of the voices of Frick and the actor who delivers Rocco’s speech is especially absurd – but I concede that’s a minor issue.

I habitually signal the “surprise item” in my surveys and this was it, as even though it has for years been the favourite of many others, it was new to me.

Herbert von Karajan – 1957 (live; mono) Andromeda; Orfeo
Wiener Philharmoniker; Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Leonore - Christel Goltz
Florestan - Giuseppe Zampieri
Pizarro - Paul Schöffler
Rocco - Otto Edelmann
Marzelline - Sena Jurinac
Jaquino - Waldemar Kmentt
Fernando - Nicola Zaccaria
Erster Gefangene - Erich Majkut
Zweiter Gefangene - Walter Berry

Coughing, bangs and crashes and brittle mono sound cannot detract from the fact that this performance has the air of an occasion about it and at least the orchestra and voices are well caught, being mostly sufficiently forward in the soundscape.

The cast is a distinguished one of famous names, the potential weakness on paper being Zampieri, the Italian tenor who became a Viennese resident and favourite; as it turns out, his Florestan is the least of the problems here and any expectations of quality are soon confounded - more of that anon. To begin with, Jurinac certainly has a more substantial sound than the usual soubrette-style Marzelline and even if Kmentt is a bit nasal, he makes a positive impression – after all, he eventually sang Walther von Stolzing. Karajan’s direction is not so different from Klemperer’s, being on the grand and monumental side and none the worse for that; the short orchestral introduction to the celebrated quartet sounds like Wagner. So far so good…

Unfortunately, as soon Christel Goltz joins in, the amplitude of her wobble compared with the straight-voiced Jurinac comes as something of a shock and whatever other relative flaws are evident in this performance, it is she who scuppers it. My patience with the pounding beat in her soprano soon wears thin; she sounds so cumbersome and matronly that I am surprised Karajan put up with her. Nor is Edelemann’s hard tone very grateful on the ear. He is better in his arias but hardly erases memories of richer voiced Roccos such as Frick, Ridderbusch and Moll. Furthermore, Schöffler is, sadly, terrible as Pizzaro – this is a great artist so far past his best that it is embarrassing, and his flat, toneless bawling does his memory no credit. (You may, however, him sing the role very well in earlier recordings, especially Böhm, above.) Ironically, and contrary to expectations, Zampieri, despite the flutter in his tonal emission, delivers an intense, trumpet-toned Florestan - but his contribution cannot compensate for the other issues here.

Alexander Melik-Pasheyev – 1960 (studio; mono) NB: sung in Russian
Cantus Classics
Orchestra - Bolshoi Theatre
Chorus - Bolshoi Theatre
Leonore - Galina Vishnevskaya
Florestan - Georgi Nelepp
Pizarro - Aleksey Petrovich Ivanov
Rocco - Nikolai Shchelgolkov
Marzelline - Irina Maslennikova
Jaquino - P. Chekin
Fernando - Viktor Nechipailo

Melik-Pashayev was a great conductor steeped in Russian tradition; he takes off like a rocket in this, the fastest version of the overture I know, even including Böhm and Fricsay, who liked to get a move on. The whole performance is propulsive but does not sound rushed; his overall timing matches that of the recent Abbado performance at Lucerne and only Toscanini live with Rose Bampton in a concert performance is faster but that is explained by the fact that he omitted the dialogue to accommodate NBC broadcasting schedules, whereas here we have the dialogue - in Russian, of course, which takes a bit of adjustment but the dialogue before Florestan is highly dramatic even if you don't understand a word. Melik-Pashayev emulates Klemperer in his understanding of how the accompaniment to the recitativo should go.

Another great bonus is the presence of the youthful Galina Vishnevskaya whose tone is perhaps essentially too bright and childlike but she is so vibrant and intense that she carries all before; her "Abscheulicher!" (whatever that is in Russian) is riveting, with a wonderful, concluding top B, accompanied by equally thrilling, watery Russian horns. Her voice isn't really sufficiently differentiated from the Marzelline, who has a similarly chirpy tone but is very musical.

So: a great conductor and a star soprano; all we need is a heroic tenor to sing and we have one in Georgi Nelepp, as good as any Florestan I have heard, including Vickers. The man could sing anything; his tone is elegant with great reserves of power.

The rest of the cast is good: the Rocco is a typical robust Russian bass with a bit too much vibrato and the Pizarro is similarly positive but a tad wobbly. The chorus is extraordinarily expressive, if anything too healthy-sounding for men who have been locked up for months in the dark, with an un-named tenor making a beautiful and moving job of the First Prisoner's solo during the "sunlight" chorus.

Fidelio in Russian might not be a first choice but fascinating and extremely well performed as it is, it can definitely be recommended as a valuable supplement.

Hans Knappertsbusch – 1961 (studio; stereo) MCA; DG; Urania; Westminster; Theorema; Decca Eloquence
Orchestra & Chorus - Bayerische Staatsoper
Leonore - Sena Jurinac
Florestan - Jan Peerce
Pizarro - Gustav Neidlinger
Rocco - Dezsö Ernster
Marzelline - Maria Stader
Jaquino - Murray Dickie
Fernando - Frederick Guthrie
Erster Gefangene – Georg Paskuda
Zweiter Gefangene - Paul Neuner

This studio recording had the misfortune to be overshadowed by Klemperer’s almost contemporaneous and justly far more celebrated recording for EMI. It is very different; whereas Klemp is mighty and hieratic, Kna’s softly-softly, slow and lyrical approach to the overture signals his approach throughout; it is very obviously a deliberate aesthetic choice and divides listeners: some find it impossibly dull and draggy, others revel in the space it gives the performers to breathe and make their points. I confess to being undecided but would suggest that its idiosyncrasies make it an unlikely top recommendation; sample this first on YouTube. I find the change from the usual intense, headlong rush rather refreshing and even seductive; on first listening, I began by being prepared to be critical but soon found myself drawn into its lyrical and detailed soundworld. Nonetheless, I balk at the leisureliness of the vocal quartet and “O namenlose Freude” is surely not Allegro vivace but a strangely stately declaration.

The cast is undeniably attractive, beginning with Maria Stader’s silvery, assured Marzelline – one of the best. Her first aria is very deliberately paced but is not leaden, I think. Murray Dickie, her Jaquino, is a tad on the effete side with a rather nasal sound but he acts credibly and sings neatly enough. Unfortunately, Dezsö Ernster Is not the richest or steadiest Rocco in disc – in fact, he is often disappointingly thin and laboured, with weak top notes, and his vocal characterisation is non-existent.

Sena Jurinac is here promoted from Marzelline for Furtwängler and Karajan to Leonore. She is in good, ringing voice deploying an attractively fast, vibrant vibrato, gleaming top notes and an especially smooth legato but suffers from the drawback which compromises other bright-voiced sopranos, such as Janowitz in their attempt to convince in a breeches role, which is insufficient differentiation from Marzelline and a lack of weight in the voice. As such, “Abscheulicher!” is beautifully sung but she does not dominate the role like Ludwig or Flagstad.

Alberich’s curse follows Gustav Neidlinger wherever he goes and it is impossible for the listener to divorce his unique timbre from his most famous role – but in fact he sounds rather strained, yelling too much. What is more, the potentially chilling moment when Pizarro orders Rocco to murder Florestan goes for very little, and their subsequent exchange never picks up any tension. Frederick Guthrie is a competent, rather cloudy-voiced Don Fernando.

Jan Peerce reprises Florestan, which he sang for Toscanini in the radio broadcast 17 years earlier (see above) – thereby, incidentally, singing the role for both the fastest and slowest conductors of Fidelio respectively. The piercing clarity of his opening “Gott” is really striking but it and the subsequent lamentation aria are balanced too far to the left in the sound picture, so sound monaural and badly unbalanced on headphones. Otherwise, this is a fine, heroic and sensitive performance.

The early 60’s stereo sound is narrow but clear, clean and present. The choir and orchestra are first class. The dialogue has been somewhat cut and is surely spoken by actors, not the singers, as there are several instances of the usual mismatch between a character’s singing and speaking voice. On the Decca Eloquence issue, a stirring account of the Leonore No. 3 interposed before the final scene of Act 2, but I don’t think that is the case for Urania; however, I don’t have all the issues by different labels so do check first if you want the overture.

Even if I have certain reservations about the singing and conducting here, and despite my reluctance to endorse it as a top choice, if you actually enjoy Kna’s unique take on the opera, the quality of at least three of the principal roles makes this well worth hearing.
 
Otto Klemperer – 1962 (studio; stereo) EMI
Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus
Leonore - Christa Ludwig
Florestan - Jon Vickers
Pizarro - Walter Berry
Rocco - Gottlob Frick
Marzelline - Ingeborg Hallstein
Jaquino - Gerhard Unger
Fernando - Franz Crass
Erster Gefangene - Kurt Wehofschitz
Zweiter Gefangene - Raymond Wolansky

While Leonore might bear the main focus of the opera, listening to a lot of Florestans has confirmed what a devil of a role it is to sing and made me re-appreciate what tours de force both of Jon Vickers’ accounts for Klemperer and Karajan were. It is not necessarily any more vocally flawless than his famous assumptions of Otello, as Vickers always gave everything and thereby risked accidents but he puts most other tenors in the shade when it comes to intensity, power and expression. To some degree, the same may be said of Ludwig.

I am well aware that some find Klemperer’s conducting too marmoreal and ponderous compared with the supposed dynamism of Karajan – surely its greatest rival, given that Bernstein’s recording is somewhat compromised by Kollo’s vocal deficiencies and the Gundula Janowitz not being right as Leonora, a role not entirely suited to her lovely voice. Nonetheless, another listen to Karajan’s recording made me think that in comparison to Klemp, he misses some of the grandeur of this music and that at times he seems simply to be hustling and rushing the music for effect rather than building the kind of tension Klemperer achieves.

This is not to denigrate Karajan’s Fidelio, which has many of the same or similar virtues as Klemperer’s recording including, of course, Vickers’ mighty and moving Florestan. Nor is there much difference between the voices of Christa Ludwig and Helga Dernesch, both of whom migrated between vocal categories and tessituras during their careers and often sound very similar, but Ludwig is the more vibrant and intense, and avoids the plaintive, feminine quality which renders Dernesch’s voice less convincing in travestito as Fidelio, a young man. She is also marginally more intense in her delivery of the text. A sonorous Gottlob Frick is so much earthier and more credible as the venal, practical, but essentially decent Rocco than the beautifully-voiced but over-refined Ridderbusch. Compared with the more percussive and tremulous Zoltan Kéléman, Walter Berry is steadier and sterner as Pizzaro and Karajan’s Prisoners’ Chorus is decidedly feeble compared with Klemperer’s; I don’t really know why, as he seems to be doing everything right. Vickers is, if anything, in better voice for Karajan than for Klemperer, but there is little in it. A young José van Dam is a treat as Don Fernando for Karajan, if a bit short on low notes, but Franz Crass is even more impressive for Klemperer. The BPO plays wonderfully but they are no better than Klemperer’s Philharmonia. More importantly, there is overall in Klemperer’s recording what I can only call an intangibly spiritual quality which eludes Karajan and I find more menace in Klemperer’s Act 2 dungeon scene during the grave-digging. In fact, blow by blow, point by point, Klemperer scores over Karajan, confirming the status of the former’s recording as an “untouchable”.

The sound is Walter Legge/EMI vintage best. A final advantage to this set is the inclusion of Leonore No. 3 and full dialogue (with producer Legge’s wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf speaking Ingeborg Hallstein’s lines).

Lorin Maazel – 1964 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker; Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Leonore - Birgit Nilsson
Florestan - James McCracken
Pizarro - Tom Krause
Rocco - Kurt Böhme
Marzelline - Graziella Sciutti
Jaquino - Donald Grobe
Fernando - Hermann Prey
Erster Gefangene - Kurt Equiluz
Zweiter Gefangene - Gunter Adam

Having previously for years been perfectly satisfied with the famous Klemperer EMI studio recording and not feeling especially tempted to try the mono Testament set (also with Klemperer at the helm) recently released, I was particularly pleased to discover how satisfying this performance is.

It's not perfect; Sciutti is a little tremulous in her aria and the great Birgit sometimes sounds both a bit detached and occasionally a little under the note in the middle section of her voice, but she really delivers in her big moments and Sciutti perks up both to blend and to contrast nicely with Nilsson in the ensembles. Nilsson also scales her voice down attractively when the emotion demands it; it's not all sand-blasting by any means. Böhme's rotund bass is almost as good as Frick's and he also has a lovely speaking voice - I can never understand it when actors are used for the dialogue; as I say above, their voices almost never match the singers'. That's not the case here, as the singers speak their own dialogue and very well too. McCracken is really very affecting as Florestan; he has all the notes and sounds utterly distraught - close to madness as the result of his dreadful plight, heroic and unhinged. Krause is a little jolly-sounding as Pizarro but vocalises very attractively; minor parts are well taken by some fairly major voices. Prey is an elegant Don Fernando. Maazel's direction isn't very subtle but it's certainly dramatic and both the orchestra and the chorus are terrific.

I think that opera buffs like me who have been listening for years to - and sometimes through - ropey old mono recordings full of hiss and distortion need to remember that for many newer collectors the quality of sound is very important when one is getting to know a central work like Fidelio, and certainly this 1964 set will not disappoint in its clarity, space and dynamics; it has been beautifully re-mastered. The artificial echo effect devised for the dungeon scene was controversial but I think it works and it is certainly consistent with the overall emphasis upon a dramatic, pacy, theatrical atmosphere.

When all is said and done, the two principals here are really involved and involving. I don't say that this set is preferable to the EMI with the incomparable Ludwig and Vickers but it's a credible option.

Karl Böhm – 1969 (studio; stereo) DG
Orchestra - Dresdner Staatskapelle; Chorus - Dresdner Oper
Leonore - Gwyneth Jones
Florestan - James King
Pizarro - Theo Adam
Rocco - Franz Crass
Marzelline - Edith Mathis
Jaquino - Peter Schreier
Fernando - Martti Talvela

A forceful, driven overture with plenty of bite and foreboding, underlined by heavy percussion, signals Böhm’s intention to emphasise the dramatic aspects of this opera and he has a great orchestra at his disposal to help him do that. This is one of those many recordings which provide Leonore No. 3 as an entr’acte (well; entre-scène, in fact) bonus and by contrast that is slow, mysterious and full of foreboding bringing out the universal, metaphysical import of Beethoven’s vision; both overtures are splendidly played and conducted, with enormously subtle tonal and dynamic variation.

Böhm’s direction is masterly; he makes the famous quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” an early highlight; the music simply hangs in the air like a flare and the four soloists are as sensitive as his conducting.

The cast is distinguished; I am not generally a fan of Peter Schreier’s constricted timbre but he sings neatly and nicely as Jaquino and one could hardly ask for a purer, perter or prettier Marzelline than the great Edith Mathis; they make an enchanting pair. I have always loved Franz Crass’ silky bass but for all that he sings wonderfully well, he is perhaps rather too refined and aristocratic to portray Rocco entirely convincingly, but I could listen to him sing all day and don’t really care.

The question with Gwyneth Jones is whether she has the beat in her soprano under control; she made some wonderful recordings where it is barely an issue and others where the amplitude of her vibrato is distressingly extreme. She is occasionally a bit gusty and there is a hint of flap on some loud, high notes in “Abscheulicher!” and I note a certain weakness on low notes which is apparent in her recital album, but I am happy to observe that she is mostly on fine form here in a role to which the steel in her sound is suited and the crucial contrast with Marzelline is maintained.

As with Gwyneth Jones, Theo Adam could be a wobbly singer and he is not entirely free of that fault here but his delivery has plenty of heft and venom, even if the pulse in his voice is sometimes obtrusive.

James King delivers a rather penny-plain Florestan; he makes little of his opening cry of “Gott!” and his tenor is a bit strained and grainy. He warms up and he makes a credible but essentially unmemorable incarcerated hero, especially when compared against singers such as Vickers who find more power and searing intensity in their utterance. Neither he nor Jones is heard at their best in “O namenlose Freude”.

A real bonus is the great Martti Talvela as Don Fernando – hugely sonorous and authoritative. The dialogue is convincingly spoken by the singers themselves.

In the final analysis, much of the singing here is very good but not necessarily the equal of that which we encounter in the finest recordings. For me, the chief glory of this set is the orchestral playing, the choral singing and, above all, Böhm’s utterly peerless conducting.

Herbert von Karajan – 1970 (studio; stereo) EMI; Classics for Pleasure; Warner
Berliner Philharmoniker; Chorus - Deutsche Oper (Berlin)
Leonore - Helga Dernesch
Florestan - Jon Vickers
Pizarro - Zoltán Kéléman
Rocco - Karl Ridderbusch
Marzelline - Helen Donath
Jaquino - Horst R Laubenthal
Fernando - José van Dam
Erster Gefangene - Werner Hollweg
Zweiter Gefangene - Siegfried Rudolf Frese

I refer you above to my point-by-point comparison between this, Karajan’s studio recording, and Klemperer’s classic account, written before I embarked upon this survey. I returned to Karajan to check my responses and found my recollections to be confirmed.

We may take excellent analogue sound for granted but there is the occasional incidence of strange balances here when Karajan no doubt interfered and did some of his own knob-twiddling. The orchestral playing, too, is wonderful; right from the start Karajan creates a mood of mystery, tension and expectation with the one of the best performances of the overture I have encountered. Nonetheless, I find that Klemperer otherwise pips Karajan at almost every turn.

NB: Leonore (1805)
Herbert Blomstedt – 1976 (studio; stereo) Berlin Classics
Orchestra - Dresdener Staatskapelle; Chorus - Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Leonore - Edda Moser
Florestan - Richard Cassilly
Rocco - Karl Ridderbusch
Pizzaro - Theo Adam
Fernando - Hermann Christian Polster
Marzelline - Helen Donath
Jaquino - Eberhard Büchner

This rarely heard or recorded original 1805 version of Beethoven's sole opera is interesting and valuable not only as a complementary supplement to the final version of 1814 but in itself as the repository of much lovely music which the composer ultimately cut in order to give the opera more tautness and dramatic feasibility. So, far from it being of merely academic interest, there is much here to delight the ear and the buff will enjoy identifying the many differences between it and the one we all know.

There is one other competitive studio version made twenty years later by John Eliot Gardiner but that is marred by the conductor's interventionist decision to provide an obtrusive commentary replacing the dialogue and by singers of considerably less quality than we have here. Others might add that the Dresden Staatskapelle is all gain over Gardiner's period band; I could not possibly comment....

There is also a recording of the 1806 revision but that is also comparatively weakly cast and is a different beast, in any case. Beethoven never in fact called this opera Leonore; that is a convenience title to distinguish this from the final version.

Just look at the 1976 cast here: the exquisite Helen Donath singing one of the best Marzellines on record so extra music like her duet with Leonore (no.10) half way through Act II is real bonus; distinguished singer Karl Ridderbusch bringing humour and a smoothly rotund bass to the role of Rocco; the Jaquino is light and characterful, if a bit throaty; Theo Adam barks and blusters his way doggedly through Pizarro's declamatory aria and the Act III quartet with enough venom to distract from the customary wobble but as far as I am concerned he is the closest thing to a drawback here. Hermann Christian Polster is steady and authoritative as Don Fernando, the deus ex machina.

But of what of our two principals? Edda Moser is today an under-rated singer, I think, but remember she it was whose "Der Hölle Rache" was included on Voyager 1's "Golden Record" of human accomplishment. She has a vibrant, powerful, slightly wiry tone and is shorn of the "Abscheulicher!" arioso, but she has the first version of the rest of her big aria and enormous dramatic energy; having a voice slightly lighter than usual allows her to despatch the ultimately jettisoned coloratura courageously. Once you've got over the shock of the substantially milder apostrophe "Gott!" he is required to deliver, the big-voiced Richard Cassilly is an affecting and musical Florestan despite being handicapped by a far less arresting first version of his opening aria. He is generally well up to the demands of the role and has an essentially attractive tone, somewhat reminiscent of Ben Heppner, despite a touch of beat under pressure.

Blomstedt is a slightly careful conductor, bringing out the beauty of Beethoven's orchestration at the expense of drama - that being the problem with the first version to begin with, necessitating Beethoven's sacrificing much lovely music to tighten things up but I find his loving care preferable to, for example, Böhm's breathless scurrying in his live Met performance of 1960. However, conversely, the scene between Rocco and Fidelio just before Florestan awakes is wonderfully tense despite being taken rather fast.

The Leipzig Radio Chorus is superb and I did a double take when the First and Second Prisoners opened their mouths, only to glance at the cast list to see that their quality was explained by the names Reiner Goldberg and Siegfried Lorenz, obviously early in their careers.

The changes get a bit of getting used to and the "Ich bin sein Weib - sein Weib? - mein Weib?" moment has comic possibilities in the wrong hands, reminiscent of The Marriage of Figaro ("Sua madre - suo padre" etc.) but they get away with it here. The ensemble for six soloists and chorus in the Finale is beautifully sung.

Anyone who loves Fidelio will want to hear this.

Leonard Bernstein – 1978 (studio; stereo) DG
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker; Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Leonore - Gundula Janowitz
Florestan - René Kollo
Pizarro - Hans Sotin
Rocco - Manfred Jungwirth
Marzelline - Lucia Popp
Jaquino - Adolf Dallapozza
Fernando - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Erster Gefangene - Karl Terkal
Zweiter Gefangene - Alfred Sramek

Bernstein may be relied upon to try to extract as much drama and theatricality from both the text and music as is humanly possible but in this case that results in a rather extreme and overworked product, whereby tempi are often to slow and dialogue too hysterically enunciated. That starts with a weirdly emphatic and plodding overture whereby individual instrumental lines are too starkly isolated and brought out while the music itself is delivered at too slow a pace – and the sudden acceleration at 5:30 is just plain gauche. Yet it must be said that the subsequent arrival of Lucia Popp and Adolf Dallapozza affords complete delight – they are the most charming pair, even if Bernstein needs to inject more pace into their exchanges; Popp’s silvery trilling is especially seductive and she becomes my favourite Marzelline. Of course, Lenny hugs the “Mir ist so wunderbar” quartet to death and it must be said that with the entry of Gundula Janowitz’ sublimely beautiful voice the listener immediately registers the fact that in fact it lacks sufficient contrast with Popp’s soprano. She finds some creditable lower register and, in many ways, sings wonderfully, but for me she sounds too feminine and Bernstein’s slow tempi in “Abscheulicher!” vitiates its potential drama; she could just as easily be singing an aria from Haydn’s Creation.

Jungwirth sings a likeable, attractive Rocco but I prefer a sturdier, darker sound for the gaoler – and there is more than a hint of unsteadiness in his tone. The smooth-voiced Hans Sotin is an artist I have always admired but as a true bass rather than a bass-baritone his top notes are sometimes a bit thin and do not pierce the dense orchestration of his declamations – nor is he especially vivid compared with artists such as Walter Berry. Fischer-Dieskau is much better than I expected him to be as Don Fernando, finding plenty of resonance and inflecting the text powerfully without overdoing it.

However, for many, the sticking point in this recording has not been Bernstein’s direction or any of the casting deficiencies discussed above but Kollo’s Florestan – and I am of that same opinion. He follows the precedent of Ernst Haefliger for Fricsay by starting “Gott” in falsetto, then swelling and breaking through into his lower register, but he does not do it half so well and the result is peculiar. Furthermore, the beat in his rough, harsh-toned tenor is distracting; he certainly sounds distressed but the effect on the listener is aurally stressful and distressing. I much prefer Vickers and a host of other singers to Kollo’s Florestan. Like Janowitz, he is not helped by Bernstein’s marmoreal speeds. His delivery of the coda to his big aria is desperately ugly and I don’t want to hear it again. He is considerably better in “O namenlose Freude” – where Janowitz is in radiant, sovereign voice - and Bernstein does not let that drag but that is too little too late, especially as although that number appears to segue satisfyingly and seamlessly into Leonore No. 3, that effect is achieved by Bernstein omitting the first loud bar of the overture. He then wades through molasses and kills the music stone dead with an absurdly elephantine approach (if you will excuse my ungainly succession of mixed metaphors) in a manner which starts to remind me of Gerald Hoffnung’s hilarious parody, Leonore Overture No. 4.

As much as I love Janowitz, even she is not ideally cast and I cannot adjudge this recording a success.

Kurt Masur - 1981-82 (studio; digital) Eurodisc; RCA; Denon; Lyrica
Orchestra - Leipziger Gewandhaus; Chorus - Leipziger Rundfunk
Leonore - Jeannine Altmeyer
Florestan - Siegfried Jerusalem
Pizarro - Siegmund Nimsgern
Rocco - Peter Meven
Marzelline - Carola Nossek
Jaquino - Rüdiger Wohlers
Fernando - Theo Adam
Erster Gefangene - Klaus König
Zweiter Gefangene - Frank-Peter Späthe

My reaction on first seeing the roster here was that it was under-cast but I know Masur to be a great conductor of Beethoven – his album of the overtures with the same orchestra as per here is my favourite, and certainly both the overtures here – the Leonore No. 3 is included - live up to expectation, being perfectly gauged: first subtly restrained then gradually building to an appropriately hard driven climax; just the way he phrases and grades the dynamics of the brooding introductions to the Leonore and Florestan’s outburst indicate Masur’s mastery of the idiom and the Leipzig orchestra is wonderful.

The young pair who open the opera are pleasant enough but I find the Marzelline’s voice irritatingly pert and cutesy. Nor am I enamoured of the intermittent beat in Jeannine Altmeyer’s soprano but that obtrudes only when she leans too hard on her rather plaintive tone on loud, high notes; otherwise, she has a sizeable sound with a rich middle zone and some heft in her lower register. She doesn’t make much of the words, however, and hardly ever varies the colours her voice, with the result that she could be singing almost anything. Siegfried Jerusalem as her husband is here pretty much as I always find him: an intelligent singer with a slightly cloudy, constricted tone. He finds considerable pathos in his lament and inflects the text more sensitively than Altmeyer. The “Ein Engel Leonoren” passage brings out the cloudiness and strain in the higher-lying passages; his is not a bad performance but it hardly falls gratefully on the ear. Siegmund Nimsgern, too, is as I always hear him; his incisive baritone is very apt for suggesting villainy, as per his famous Klingsor for Karajan, but the catch in it also suggest that he is just on the verge on cracking – even if he doesn’t – while the top can be shaky. He characterises Pizarro successfully but other singers do the same without the same vocal compromises.

Peter Meven’s Rocco is excellent; he sounds rather like Frick but not as fruity – and the early digital sound is excellent, but apart from Masur’s direction, there is nothing much here to recommend it over the best of the competition.

Bernard Haitink – 1989 (studio; digital) Philips; Decca
Orchestra - Staatskapelle Dresden; Chorus - Dresdner Oper
Leonore - Jessye Norman
Florestan - Reiner Goldberg
Pizarro - Ekkehard Wlaschina
Rocco - Kurt Moll
Marzelline - Pamela Coburn
Jaquino - Hans Peter Blochwitz
Fernando - Andreas Schmidt
Erster Gefangene - Wolfgang Millgramm
Zweiter Gefangene - Egbert Junghaus

I reviewed this in 2010 and hold to my opinion:

Even before it was released, this recording had the look of a winning combination: Haitink had successfully conducted Fidelio at the Met and in 1989 Jessye Norman was still in possession of the grandest voice since Flagstad in her prime. In the event, despite its promise and the desirability of a new interpretation in digital sound, this set turned out to be a disappointment. In Norman’s case, a noble voice proved inadequate if it was not paired with the sense of drama and acute facility with the text evinced by rival interpreters such as Ludwig or Nilsson. Haitink seems to have jettisoned the excitement which apparently characterised his live performances in favour of a literalism which borders on the inert. It is not so much the case that his speeds are slow, as that he fails to phrase and that rhythms remain slack.

This melancholy conclusion holds good throughout a side-by-side comparison of the main features of this recording with those of the earlier sets conducted by Klemperer and Maazel. Take the famous Prisoners’ Chorus; Klemperer generates spiritual intensity, Maazel a searing desperation, and Haitink … well, virtually nothing other than a serviceable run-through. As Florestan and Pizarro, Vickers and Berry for Klemperer and McCracken and Krause for Maazel have twice the power of the generally light-voiced or simply inadequate singers available to Haitink. The tenor First Prisoner is dreadful. Andreas Schmidt has an attractive baritone with a fast vibrato, but can in no wise emulate the frisson that Franz Crass’ noble baritone creates for Klemperer when Don Fernando arrives to punish evildoers. I am mystified to read elsewhere rapturous appreciations of Wlaschiha’s windy, grainy Pizarro; wholly unable to conjure up the Grand Guignol of his predecessors’ assumptions through vocal means alone; he shouts and blusters his way through the part. Reiner Goldberg was probably at that time the best tenor of the type required that Decca could find. Even so, I have heard him sing with fuller, more attractive tone in other roles. Here his tone is frequently throttled. In comparison with both his stage wife and his illustrious recorded forebears, his inadequacy is all too plain to hear; he is like a male spider, vocally devoured by his mate.

There are bright spots. The glory of Norman’s singing as singing per se is one of those – yet even Norman’s vocalism sounds to me at times not so much uncomfortable as manufactured in the upper reaches of her voice: the top Bs and B flats sound disjointed from the rest of the voice and I have already noted her lack of engagement with the text. Kurt Moll’s Rocco is almost a case of over-casting but he is as firm and as sonorous as ever, and makes much more of his words than Norman – even if his is a rather noble sound for a character who extols the joys of money. The dialogue is clearly, intelligently and pacily delivered. The Dresden Staatskapelle and the State Opera Chorus are fine – but the latter are outshone by both Wilhelm Pitz’s Philharmonia Chorus and the Vienna State Opera Choir, who sing with more power and expressivity. The recorded sound in the Lukaskirche is warm and spacious. There is some sweet, innocuous singing from the young lovers, Pamela Coburn and Hans Peter Blochwitz. Yet even the divine quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” fails to take off; I turned with relief from Haitink’s stodgy version to Klemperer’s glowing account.

Comparisons are odorous, but unless you are a die-hard Jessye Norman fan-completist, or must have digital sound, I can see no good reason for preferring this to the classic versions by Klemperer, Fricsay and Maazel – or, for some tastes, those by Karajan and Bernstein.

This 2 CD set is one of a new series of bargain issues by Decca in crude, 1960s pop-art style sporting hideous, acidic colours. Despite their appearance, they are very good value, even if there is no libretto.

Colin Davis – 1995 (studio; digital) RCA
Orchestra - Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Leonore - Deborah Voigt
Florestan - Ben Heppner
Pizarro - Günter von Kannen
Rocco - Matthias Hölle
Marzelline - Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz
Jaquino - Michael Schade
Fernando - Thomas Quasthoff
Erster Gefangene - Andreas Schulist
Zweiter Gefangene - Wilfried Vorwol

The promise of a mightily impressive cast and Sir Colin Davis at the head of a fine orchestra is somewhat counteracted by a nerveless, lacklustre overture, in which the requisite percussive accents are too soft and there is a palpable lack of tension; it sounds more like the sunnier passages of the Pastoral Symphony. That insouciant mood is maintained throughout but Fidelio should be suffused with shadow and foreboding until the great, climactic – and literal - release.

Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz has a thin, piping soprano and her Jaquino is similarly lightweight; neither makes much impression and Davis, whose vivacity I always admire elsewhere, especially in Mozart, continues to conduct in rather neutral manner without any evident engagement. He went through a very uninspired patch while directing the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and this recording is typical of that fallow period.

The quartet immediately reveals the lack of distinction between the two lead sopranos; Voigt’s soprano is too light and bright, with a glittering top but lacking the autumnal, more masculine timbre essential to the role of Leonore. Matthias Hölle is a bland, competent Rocco of no particular individuality in characterisation or vocalisation and Günter von Kannen is similarly unimpressive, as his voice carries no hint of dark menace, being devoid of proper resonance, hence he is reduced to shouting.

Heppner delivers a typically refined, controlled incarnation of Florestan; he is every inch the Spanish aristocrat and equal to the demands of the music, singing beautifully – but that is the point; he hardly sounds distressed and a greater sense of suffering would not have gone amiss. With Vickers, or McCracken, the listener lives the prisoner’s anguish; with Heppner, one listens to some elegant vocalisation.

The sound is very good but that is of no consequence when the performance itself is so pale. Even the Leonore No. 3 is listless, with unfathomably long, pointless pauses in the slow passage before the triumphal second subject which then never catches fire.

I am a great admirer of both lead artists and treasure some of their recordings together such as their phenomenal Gurrelieder under Levine, but this dull recording is best passed over.

Charles Mackerras - 1996-97 (studio; digital) Telarc
Scottish Chamber Orchestra; Edinburgh Festival Chorus
Leonore - Gabriela Benacková
Florestan - Anthony Rolfe-Johnson
Pizarro - Franz-Josef Kapellmann
Rocco - Siegfried Vogel
Marzelline - Ildiko Raimondi
Jaquino - John Mark Ainsley
Fernando - David Wilson-Johnson
Erster Gefangene - John Mark Ainsley
Zweiter Gefangene - David Wilson-Johnson

Mackerras’ bracing speeds and the clear textures of a reduced orchestra using original instruments make an arresting treatment of Beethoven’s score. Tempos are sometimes a bit frantic but certainly different from the more reverential, even sententious, traditional recordings and the instrumentation is distinctive: the narrow-bore brass and natural horns make for interesting sonorities, so the lighter, purring accompaniment to the “Wunderbar” quartet is interesting, even if one misses the cushion of warm sound which should underpin it. There is also no doubt that the frisky pace of the Prisoners’ Chorus is simply an error of judgement, robbing it of poignancy. It helps, however, that John Mark Ainsley sings the First Prisoner so sensitively; David Wilson-Johnson makes less impact and is a similarly a rather unimposing Fernando. There are times, too, when I feel as if Mackerras’ relentless propulsion is applied and doctrinaire rather than aesthetically motivated but he relaxes more in Act 2 and dramatically his vision is all of piece.

The singers are generally leaner and less “operatic” than that to which we have become accustomed: the Marzelline and Jaquino are neat and fleet, up to Mackerras’ breathless tempi in the first scene. There is a degree of wiriness in Ildiko Raimondi’s soprano but she is vivacious and characterful. Siegfried Vogel is not ideal as Rocco: he sounds too young and a bit rocky, without the deep, bass resonance which makes singers such as Kipnis, Böhme and Moll and so paternal and convincing. Nonetheless, he is genial, sings most musically and delivers his text feelingly. I have read some scathing criticisms of Benacková’s performance as Leonore but I find her performance engaging. Her timbre is rather mature and husky but she fully inhabits the character and her top notes are rich and full, even if her lower register lacks clout. She does not have the vocal charisma or effulgence of Ludwig or Rysanek but her singing has real integrity.

Franz-Josef Kapellmann is a splendidly hateful Pizarro: hard and biting of voice and he speaks as well as sings with real venom - I think the singers are speaking their own dialogue as nothing jars; the grave-digging scene in the dungeon is grippingly delivered. The hard percussion strikes and blaring brass accompanying his “O welch ein Augenblick” enhance that vivaciousness. There is more than a hint of Alberich about his characterisation.

The most interesting and indeed crucial component of this recording is Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s Florestan. Again, the orchestral introduction to his first great aria is rather different from the norm, the bleating horns, vibratoless strings and hard drumsticks making unusual textures. He uses the approach chosen by several other tenors of a gentle start, swelling on the note and it works, especially as he doesn’t have the vocal resources to imitate singers such as Vickers; he is more in the Patzak and Haefliger mode. You can hear from the way he leans on his vibrato that he is singing at his limits but he is, after all, portraying a man in extremis and he was always an artist who used text with great skill, sensitivity and nuance. His soft singing is beautiful and he make Florestans’s suffering and plight truly moving.

Despite some reservations, I listen to this version with considerable pleasure, as it is a cohesive, coherent and consistent account which presents something rather different from the norm and there is no doubt that Mackerras knows exactly what he is doing, even if he sometimes simply sounds rushed. Nor are all the voices here necessarily “best in class” but this recording succeeds triumphantly as an ensemble.

Rather than being inserted between the two scenes of Act 2, Leonore No. 3 in the score that Beethoven sent to Prague in 1814 for a performance led by Carl Maria von Weber is provided as an appendix. It is given a taut, thrilling performance here.

I happily admit that I am much more taken with this recording than I thought I would be and would suggest that it has its place as thoughtful, original “authentic” variation of the score. Routine, it is not - and it does a great job of papering over the supposed weaknesses and inconsistencies in Beethoven’s score in order to create really absorbing “theatre of the mind”.

Michael Halász – 1998 (studio; digital) Naxos
Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Hungarian Radio Chorus
Leonore - Inga Nielsen
Florestan - Gösta Winbergh
Pizarro - Alan Titus
Rocco - Kurt Moll
Marzelline - Edith Lienbacher
Jaquino - Herwig Pecoraro
Fernando - Wolfgang Glashof
Erster Gefangene - Péter Pálinkás
Zweiter Gefangene - Józef Moldvay

Naxos have provided quite a few quality opera recordings at bargain prices often with, to adapt a Richard Strauss bon mot, “first-rate second-rate casts” and this starts promisingly with a fine account of the overture in pleasing digital sound. There is certainly nothing of the second rank about the four lead singers here who are all international names and they are matched with a competent pair of young lovers, even if Herwig Pecoraro is hard-voiced and Edith Lienbacher is a tad shrill.

Best of all, of course is the great, late and much-lamented bass Kurt Moll, absurdly dark and treacly of tone, oozing personality; just the way he intones “Der Gouverneur” is a story-book and he tends to dominate proceedings in a way denied to lesser-voiced Roccos. Inge Nielsen is rather more anonymous; her tone is centred too high and is too plaintive compared with the best exponents of Leonore, so the contrast with Marzelline in ensemble is insufficient, something which is immediately apparent in “Mir ist so wunderbar” and “Gut, Söhnchen, Gut”. Having said that, that “wunderbar” quartet is poised and cumulatively enthralling. “Abscheulicher!” is peculiar, Nielsen sound oddly matronly and more querulous than courageous, lacking the weight and resonance required, and there is very little to thrill the listener in her careful negotiation of the coloratura coda. Alan Titus, a singer whom I usually admire, sounds to be labouring in Pizarro’s big ranting aria with his pulsing vibrato and dull tone. Let us pass swift over the unspeakably bad Don Fernando – he’s a shocker. Moll apart, it is left to another fine singer who left us far too early, Gösta Winbergh, to provide vocal distinction. He is not much helped by Halász’s provision of a rather listless orchestral introduction to his monologue but then chooses the effective ploy of starting “Gott!” in falsetto and swelling into his lower register, which is very effective. His essentially beautiful tenor tone falls gratefully on the ear but he still sounds suitably desperate, surmounting the many challenges of the role; his is surely one of the most attractive Florestans on record.

The orchestra and chorus are both excellent. For me, there are so many things here which are right, especially the contributions of Moll and Winbergh, making the central weakness in the miscasting of Nielsen as Fidelio all the more regrettable.

Daniel Barenboim – 1999 (studio; digital) Teldec
Orchestra -Staatskapelle Berlin; Chorus - Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin
Leonore - Waltraud Meier
Florestan - Plácido Domingo
Pizarro - Falk Struckmann
Rocco - René Pape
Marzelline - Soile Isokoski
Jaquino - Werner Güra
Fernando - Kwangchul Youn
Zweiter Gefangene - Klaus Häger

Let me say right away that this cannot be a prime – or even a secondary – recommendation for three main reasons. First, the conducting: I am rarely a fan Barenboim’s ponderous manner. His weightiness and careful shaping sometimes work here, starting with a grand and mysterious opening to the overture, but the faster second section is listless and there are key points where he is similarly too cautious. Secondly, this set is doubly handicapped by the omission of all the dialogue. The original, live production which served as a basis for this recording was semi-staged and replaced the dialogue with a narration, which spared us Domingo’s Hispanic-accented German but impairs this recording as a coherent dramatic experience. Thirdly, the casting is problematic – not with the delightful pairing of Isokoski and Güra, however; her shimmering, silvery soprano brings an unusual – if perhaps rather too knowing and aristocratic – refinement to the role of Marzelline, and Güra is attractively boyish and unforced. The young René Pape is – well, too young-sounding for Rocco – always a problem for young basses who are lumbered with the stereotypical operatic roles of father, sages, mages and villains to which their voice type is invariably allocated - but he manages to sing neatly and sonorously while characterising strongly. Falk Struckmann is suitably malicious but the obtrusive pulse in his baritone is bothersome and his ability to vary the colour of his sound is limited. Kwangchul Youn delivers a noble-toned Don Fernando, even if he is a little bit “bottled” and could open up more when he brings relief and release to the afflicted.

The main problems are with the two leads. I have never enjoyed Waltraud Meier’s constricted sound; she sounds like a mezzo straining to be a dramatic soprano, with an “ingolato” timbre and intonation issues – in truth, her voice can turn ugly. “Abscheulicher!” is oddly matronly and Barenboim’s stately manner does not help. Domingo’s tenor is turning very nasal by this stage of his career but he manages the opening, slow lament section of his opening aria well and his sung German is in fact quite acceptable. The problem is the lack of warmth and colour in his delivery of the text; the nasality becomes more pronounced the higher and faster he goes so the final, desperate, hallucinatory section of his aria becomes monotonous and rather wearing. His voice in consort with Meier’s renders “O namenlose Freude” thin and strained and once again Barenboim fails to inject the requisite passion. Compare his and Böhm’s Leonore No. 3 to confirm my point.

Claudio Abbado – 2010 (live composite; digital) Decca
Mahler Chamber Orchestra & the Lucerne Festival Orchestra; Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Leonore – Nina Stemme
Florestan – Jonas Kaufmann
Pizarro – Falk Struckmann
Rocco – Christof Fischesser
Marzelline – Rachel Harnisch
Jaquino – Christoph Strehl
Fernando – Peter Mattei
Erster Gefangene - Juan Sebastian Acosta
Zweiter Gefangene - Levente Pall

There is no denying that I have gradually fallen out of love with Jonas Kaufmann’s voice as the years have gone by and his career has advanced. It was never as big live as it sounded in recordings and has become increasingly cloudy and hoarse, losing its upper frequencies and its consequent original similarity to Vickers’ sound, such that it is now cloudy and devoid of squillo. Back over a decade ago, it still had some of those now lost qualities, causing me to write the following review:
 
“Es ist wahr - der Mensch hat so eine Stimme…” (It's true - the man has such a voice...") - which applies not only to Jonas Kaufmann's haunting depiction of Florestan but to the vocal quality of the tenor himself. His characterisation of Florestan is deeply moving on a scale to match that of Jon Vickers' famous assumption, but not even Vickers could have managed the astounding messa di voce on the G of "Gott", the first note Florestan is given to sing as Act 2 opens in the dungeon. This marks an artistic and technical advance on the version on Kaufmann's recital album where, impressive though that is, he simply starts mezza voce and swells the note; this live performance of Florestan's aria is the kind of thing which will be anthologised in twenty years when a disc is issued commemorating great singers of the early 21C.

However, Kaufmann is not the only glory of this set; Abbado's conducting is of the highest order: exceptionally sensitive, shaped and nuanced, drawing meltingly lovely playing from a combination of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Just listen to the soft playing of the horns accompanying Nina Stemme in "Komm, Hoffnung". Indeed, there is a chamber-music-like intensity and detail in Abbado's direction; everything he does makes you listen afresh to the humanity of this opera yet he in no sense emulates the kind of majestic grandeur of Klemperer's classic recording. The Prisoners' Chorus, for example, is sung by a smaller onstage chorus than is normal and I miss the swelling exaltation of their hymn to the sunlight which Klemperer creates, but instead we get a very touching, intimate sense of their suffering. I wish, however, that the truncated dialogue in the edition used here included some of my favourite moments such as Jaquino's announcement that "Der Herr Minister" Don Fernando has arrived and Rocco's response to it: "Wir kommen - ja, wir kommen augenblichlich!" and the heart-rending exchange between Florestan and Leonore exchange, "O mein Leonore, was hast du für mich getan?" - "Nichts, nichts, mein Florestan", before "O namenlose Freude!" The orchestra are sparing with but not afraid of vibrato, which is judiciously applied to lend Romantic ardour as and when required.

The other aspect of this live recording - the sound, by the way, is exceptionally full and clear, very well balanced and mercifully free of extraneous noise - which gave me most pleasure is Christof Fischesser's Rocco. He can be a blustering, blundering old boor/bore but the singer here, of whom I confess never to have heard but admire greatly on the evidence of this performance, makes him a warm, likeable pragmatist with a heart. He has a voice not of the rotund Gottlob Frick type but one in the lighter basso cantante tradition of Ridderbusch and Moll - an exceptionally clean, focused sound with an appealing edge. The other real, but brief, pleasure is to be found in Peter Mattei's Don Fernando, his beautiful baritone here sounding very similar to that of Simon Keenlyside - which I mean as high praise, especially as I recently heard the latter recently live at the Royal Opera House as a most impressive Macbeth and realised how much bigger his voice has become of late. The two lovers are very capable singers, especially Rachel Harnisch as a charming but not pert or shrill Marzelline.

About Stemme's Leonore and Struckmann's Pizarro I have some reservations, mainly on account of the excessive vibrato both allow to creep into their voices in the middle range, yet she is as committed and intense a Leonore as we have heard since Nilsson and Ludwig, with a big, soaring voice and very clear, dramatic enunciation of the text. I could do with a bit more abandon in "Abscheulicher" but she has all the notes up to a ringing top B. Struckmann characterises very well; he is a strikingly unpleasant and audibly psychotic Pizarro, whereas some singers, such as Tom Krause, as much as I love his voice, make him sound too noble. Dramatically, he is as convincing as Walter Berry for Klemperer, but Berry is a better, more flexible singer. But Kaufmann is simply a marvel.

This is another way to perform this elusive opera and the most successful since Klemperer's celebrated recording, which remains very different: more "old school" symphonic but equally uplifting, spritually; the Abbado is perhaps, though, more moving for being on a more human scale. It was obviously a great experience live and is equally rewarding on CD for repeated listening, owing to the sound quality and lack of stage noise.

* * *

The flaws I hear in the contributions of Stemme and Struckmann in combination with my doubts whether Fidelio really benefits from Abbado’s smaller-scale approach prevent me from making this a top recommendation, despite its virtues.

Marek Janowski 2020 (studio; digital)
Dresdner Philharmonie; Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden & Male voices of MDR-Rundfunkchor
Leonore – Lise Davidsen
Florestan – Christian Elsner
Pizarro – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Rocco – Georg Zeppenfeld
Marzelline – Christina Landshamer
Jaquino – Cornel Frey
Fernando – Günther Groissböck
Erster Gefangene - Aaron Pegram
Zweiter Gefangene - Chao Deng

My MWI colleague Göran Forsling has recently favourably reviewed the download of this is as I write, and I quote his conclusion that “this new recording doesn’t exactly sweep the board, considering how many excellent recordings from yesteryear exist, but it is highly competitive”. He is typically more generous than I, who have a growing reputation to maintain as the Grinch of Opera; my own review here will appear separately from this survey, but the content will be the same as here.

First impressions are that Janowski directs a briskly efficient, spick and span overture which will offend no-one except the listener actually seeking an identifiable interpretative stance where the conductor has points he wants to make and something to say about the music. The ensuing duet between Marzelline and Jaquino is similarly perfectly capable and competent - without a hint of the charm and individuality of previous couples for Toscanini or Furtwängler. Christina Landshamer has one of those ubiquitous modern voices with a slightly too obtrusive, “applied” vibrato rather than one which proceeds from the natural pulse of the voice itself. Cornel Frey has, similarly, an all-purpose, constricted little tenor of limited appeal. Georg Zeppenfeld is fine, as long as you want a Rocco of the lighter kind without any of the treacly depths of Frick, Crass or Moll.

The “wunderbar” quartet is slow but to my ears, not rapt – just slow, without any inner pulse. This typifies my response to this recording as a whole; having listened to so many previous accounts, I find this by comparison utterly devoid of atmosphere or magic - and as much of that is down to Janowski’s flat, uninspired conducting as to the workaday singing. The same lack of soul applies to the Prisoners’ Chorus, which here goes for nothing, complete with another undistinguished tenor and a Second Prisoner who is no more a “bass” than the First. The first piece of real tension and excitement does not arise until well into the second Act with the brief but thrilling “Es schlägt der Rache Stunde”; everything picks up from there but it’s too late in the day.

Clearly the main draw here is the presence of the rising Norwegian star Lise Davidsen. While acknowledging her manifest gifts, I have been less enraptured than other MusicWeb reviewers by her previous recordings and have indicated areas in her vocal technique which give me concern for future developments (review; review). I hear the same faults and virtues here and will confess that I simply do not respond viscerally to her voice as I do to Ludwig, Rysanek or even Martha Mödl who, for all her technical faults, was a real stage animal and stirs the listener every time she opens her mouth. Davidsen has a big, burnished tone which occasionally turns fluttery and I still dislike the way she swells individual notes in phrases; however, she makes a wonderful job of much of “Abscheulicher!”, especially the huge top Bs on “erreichen” and the final phrase, but as in her recitals, her use of text isn’t especially enlightening. She rarely moves me; if I want to know how Leonore feels, I look elsewhere.

I fear that Christian Elsner’s tenor has deteriorated since his recording of the Wagner arrangement of Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis eight years ago. Its basic quality is now throttled and bottled with a heavy falsetto bias for top notes and little of the heft which marks out the true Heldentenor that he looked to become; he has his work cut out just to negotiate the notes and there isn’t much left for subtleties, especially as he frequently sounds as if he is only just preventing cracking by becoming increasingly throaty. Phrases such as “Und die Ketten sind mein Lohn” are embarrassingly unsteady and he frequently turns flat as he is unable to maintain tone and resonance. His contribution to “O namenlose Freude!” is just pitiful, he is so outshone and overpowered by Davidsen.

Apart from Davidsen’s moments of splendour, the exceptions to the lack of vocal quality here lie in two other singers: the incisive baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle, who makes Pizarro a truly nasty piece of work, delivering his speech with bite and venom and singing with ringing confidence; this is the best Pizarro since DFD and Walter Berry decades before. The other is Günther Groissböck, whose lean, dark bass is similarly impressive; unfortunately, nobody makes a decision on which Fidelio to buy based on the portrayals of Pizarro and Don Fernando.

It is an advantage here that the singers speak their own dialogue rather than having to yield to ill-matching actors. The engineered sound is clinical, with a strange, disembodied quality which is surely sometimes deliberately intensified by the engineers, as in Davidsen’s concluding top B which I mention above. The digipack contains a handsome booklet with photographs, full, helpful notes in which Steffan Georgi traces the work’s genesis and provides character sketches, and the German text with an English translation. There is plenty of space on the second CD for the Leonore overture, but we are denied it; I wonder why.

There is a prevailing blandness to this recording, in Janowski’s unvarying beat, the intermittently merely efficient singing and the laboratory sound which for me kills the opera stone dead; I frequently find my attention wandering.

Recommendations
Despite the sonic improvement Pristine have made to Furtwängler’s 1953 studio recording, the abridgment of the dialogue inclines me towards recommending his earlier, live recording with Flagstad, but that later studio account is still recommendable. Otherwise, nothing shakes my loyalty to the classic Klemperer version, and once again I find myself spurning more recent offerings and defaulting to ridiculously venerable recordings.
 
Live mono: Furtwängler – 1950
Studio mono: Furtwängler – 1953
Studio stereo: Klemperer – 1962*; Fricsay 1957
“Authentic” version: Mackerras 1996-97
(Leonore: Blomstedt 1976)
*First choice
 
Ralph Moore



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