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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Fidelio - opera in two acts (1804-5)
Leonore - Gabriele Schnaut (soprano); Marzelline - Ruth Ziesak (soprano); Florestan - Josef Protschka (tenor); Jaquino - Uwe Heilmann (tenor); Don Fernando - Tom Krause (baritone); Don Pizarro - Hartmut Welker (bass-baritone); Rocco - Kurt Rydl (bass); Prisoner - Falk Struckmann (bass-baritone)
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. 1991, Konzerthaus, Vienna. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93921 [70.20 + 47.06]

Experience Classicsonline


Although this is the 1814 version, it is important to recall that Beethoven wrote the original in 1804 with all the political upheaval that was then swirling around. The tumbrils of France cast a long shadow over Europe, with the Reign of Terror and its guillotine or incarceration for political deeds or words. Couple that with Beethoven’s increasing isolation, caused by his diminishing hearing, and his determination to overcome it. Thus, it is not surprising that this supposedly true story, upon which a play had been based, should have such appeal for him. A husband’s incarceration below ground for an unspecified offence coupled with the fearless determination of his wife to release him mirror Beethoven’s view of this aural plight.

This recording is one of a collection of fifteen titles launched by Brilliant Classics with another fifteen scheduled for release in December 2009. Their web-site tells us that in the first batch “Many of (the) releases are award-winners and will be instantly recognisable to consumers as classics”. These releases include Callas/Tosca, Schwarzkopf/Marschallin and Flagstad/Isolde. The website also gives brief background to the writing of this opera whilst the booklet accompanying the CD gives a synopsis and a list of track numbers. “What, no libretto?” I hear you say. Not in the booklet, but there it is on their easily navigable web-site.

If recordings are to be referenced by individual names - as others are referred to above - then I suspect that with Fidelio it is going to be the conductor who is referred to more than any soloist. I say that because in my own collection the recording that I tend to reach for is the Klemperer of 1962, digitally re-mastered in 1994 (EMI CDS 5 55170 2) although the Barenboim of 1999 runs it close (Teldec 3984-25249-2). Therefore will this recording become the Dohnányi Fidelio? Very possibly – but not necessarily for all the right reasons.

This is a strong reading of the score with the orchestra fully involved in the production. The pace is generally brisk and occasionally at a gallop. What disappoints me is the balance between wind and strings. The brass has a clear role in this opera that this recording does not reflect: I know not whether the microphones were in the ‘wrong’ place but too often the brass sounds distant or even slightly muffled.

However, Gabriele Schnaut, in the title role, is never muffled. She is a powerful Fidelio (Leonore) whom I usually associate with her more frequent Wagnerian roles. There are several opportunities for her to display her deeply attractive and warm speaking voice commencing with her initial exchanges with Kurt Rydl (the gaoler, Rocco). Her vocal acting is excellent: an example is her eruption after the on-stage plotting of Hartmut Welker (the prison governor Pizarro) and Rydl. She starts with steady, controlled recitative before moving into her truly dramatic soprano with some fairly horrible leaps which she hits well. If there is a suggestion of a lack of vocal strength in her lower register and a slight diminishing of tonal beauty on high, it is more than made up for by her evenness of head to chest transfers, her assurance of vocal line and the believable drama with which she invests the role.

Not having appeared in Act I, Josef Protschka (Florestan) never leaves the stage in Act 2. His introduction to that second act, which leads into his aria, does not reflect the bleakness of his situation. The colouring is too bland with no serious darkness. Therefore there is no overwhelming contrast between that section and the sudden breeze and light as Rocco and Fidelio enter the dungeon bringing a gloom-relieving spring in the music. Certainly Protschka displays that spring with mounting excitement and dynamics. It would have appeared in greater contrast if the first part had conveyed the apparent hopelessness of his position.

The dependable Kurt Rydl is the pragmatic gaoler. Rydl also has the gift of a warm-toned speaking voice. His vocal skills make so clear his role as the reluctant accomplice: with Schnaut, giving wine and bread to Protschka; with Hartmut Welker (Pizarro) in the grave preparation - but convincingly drawing the line at murder. Earlier he is the caring father emphasising the importance of money to oil the wheels of love: Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben. Rydl consistently displays his vocal strengths in note accuracy, dynamics, colours and tone. Really we would expect no less.

The Don Pizarro of Hartmut Welker only occasionally sounds venomously evil. Pizarro is an out-and-out villain with no sign of remorse or hope of redemption. Too frequently Welker seems to mistake loudness for aggression. Critical words are ‘just’ sung and not snarled: Er sterbe!... sounds almost like an invitation. He also has the misfortune to have a too enthusiastic orchestral accompaniment at his initial entrance to the Act I finale.

Don Fernando is a small but important part. Despite his undoubted class, Tom Krause does not quite bring off the rescuing Minister’s authoritarian sound. Initially when addressing the people there are signs of vocal effort. Later there is only limited colouring and vocal involvement in the recognition of Florestan and in the instructions to release Florestan’s fetters.

Ruth Ziesak (Marzelline) and Uwe Heilmann (Jacquino) set the opening ‘domestic’ lyrical scene with complementary tones, brightness and strong vocal lines with subdued orchestral support. Her aria is delivered with a firm vocal line and an emphasis on the lightly lyrical longing of love.

Falk Struckmann as the prisoner is luxury casting: eight years after this recording he became Pizarro on the Barenboim recording - and a nasty piece of work he is there. Here he delivers a soft-toned prisoner suddenly and temporarily released into the light; a pleasure to hear.

The chorus, variously soldiers, prisoners or villagers, are crisp and convincing with dynamics in plenty - from whispering sentries for Pizarro to celebrating villagers.

So much for the individuals: I sometimes wonder whether Beethoven was not more comfortable with a multiplicity of voices. Certainly, for me, the writing for the ensembles appears more assured. The canon Mir ist so wunderbar is excellent. Ziesak’s ringing tone couples with Schnaut’s tonal warmth, Rydl’s gentle depth and Heilmann’s supportive tenor to cogent effect. Similar remarks apply to the thoroughly enjoyable trio Gut, Söhnchen,gut (Schnaut/Ziesak/Rydl).

The interaction of Schnaut and Protschka is fundamental to Act II: sadly, too often the orchestra becomes a participant rather than a supporter. In the last duet, O namenlose Freude!, the consequence of too much orchestral weight is that Schnaut turns up her volume. From time to time she loses both her tonal beauty and her pinpoint steadiness.

In conclusion there are some excellent features on this recording but for me it does not disturb the supremacy of the Klemperer recording.

Robert McKechnie



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