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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
König Stephan, Op 117 [32.25]
Leonore Overture No 2, Op 72a [11.54]
Leonore Overture No 3, Op 72b [12.10]
Leonore Overture No 1, Op 138 [8.19]
Fidelio Overture, Op 72 [5.56]
Bernd Tauber (speaker)
Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno
Cappella Aquileia/Marcus Bosch
rec. 8-9 July 2019, Festspielhaus Congress Centrum Heidenheim, Germany
CPO 777 771-2 [70.57]

Most of us know the König Stephan overture, but the remainder of this occasional work is much less familiar. The work – along with The Ruins of Athens – was written to mark the opening of a new theatre in Pest which had been donated to Hungarians to thank the people for their loyalty to the Austrian monarchy. August von Kotzubue’s eponymous play, refers to King Saint Stephen, who became the first king of Hungary in 1000, promoting Christianity (his incorrupt right hand may be inspected in Budapest Cathedral). For this recording, connecting narrative is in a modernised, and mercifully brief but clear text by Kai Wessler, eloquently spoken by Bernd Tauber. Other wise there are nine numbers, most choral but with a melodrama.

Marcus Bosch and his orchestra tend to very fleet tempos, with attention to orchestral textures, which are overall light. The overture is perhaps too lightweight for some tastes, and there is a case for saying that some note values might have been more fully realised, especially in faster passages. But the sense of theatre is maintained. Special praise is due to the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno: their pin-point accuracy in singing, coupled with precise articulation, are a highlight of the disc. The various numbers have many virtues, but they are not Beethoven in full flight, and the enthusiasm of the performances is needed to make up some decent hackwork. For anyone who is a Beethoven lover, this performance provides an attractive option, worth occasional revisiting.

The substantial fillers, accounting for over half the release, are the four overtures for Leonore/Fidelio. Performances are perfectly acceptable, with some attractive use of woodwinds, but with the same issue of under-characterisation, especially in swifter passages. There are things to enjoy throughout, but – especially noticeable in Leonore 2 and 3 – there is nothing that really excited me. The great trumpet calls lack dramatic tension, and hidden depths remain concealed. I cannot imagine these performances as anyone’s first choice.

If a complete König Stephan appeals, then this performance does nicely; but I doubt I shall often revisit it.

Michael Wilkinson

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