Musicweb International
John Quinn
Recording of the Month - Beethoven: Fidelio

There was a time when Decca and the other major record labels would issue important new opera recordings almost every month. How long ago those days now seem! A new opera issue from Decca is therefore unusual but this new Fidelio is of such quality that it’s a major event in itself.

The recording is taken from two concert performances at the 2010 Lucerne Festival. One great benefit of that is that we have on the podium Claudio Abbado, surely one of the fairly few conductors currently active who justifies the use of the adjective ‘great’. In the pit is a band made up from members of two stellar, hand-picked – and interwoven - orchestras, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. I should say straightaway that the orchestral playing in this recording is of uncommon distinction.

The cast, which hasn’t a weak link, is dominated by two exciting singers. The Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whose recording credits include Isolde in EMI’s Tristan (review) is a wonderful Leonore while the German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, who impresses me hugely every time I hear him, excels as Florestan

We have to wait until Act II to hear Kaufmann but when we do hear him, what an impact he makes! At the very start of ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!’ he starts the word ‘Gott!’ almost inaudibly and expands the sound to forte through a long and meticulously controlled crescendo. Without access to a score I can’t say if this is authentic; it’s a very different approach to the loud cry with which Jon Vickers (for Klemperer) utters the word but Kaufmann’s approach is just as effective – arguably more so – as an anguished cry of despair. It’s an arresting moment. He goes on to give a formidable account of the aria ‘In des Lebens Frühlingstagen’, deploying a flawless technique and delivering an emotionally charged reading. Just before ‘Und spür’ ich nicht linde, sanft säuseinde Luft?’ the stage direction translates in the booklet as “with a calm rapture, which nevertheless verges on madness”. To my ears, Kaufmann follows this dictum splendidly in the passage that follows.

As Leonore, Nina Stemme has a much longer role to sing. Her voice seems very well suited to the part. She has a gleaming top and yet there’s also roundness and body in the lower register of the voice, enough to remind us that several mezzos have been notable exponents of the role. ‘Abscheulicher!’ is powerfully projected and then ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ is movingly sung as she convincingly portrays Leonora’s fears and courage. Later, in Act II she’s magnificent in the confrontation trio with Florestan and Pizarro.

As I said, there isn’t a weak link in the cast. Falk Struckmann is a menacing, sinister Pizarro, though sometimes the vibrato he deploys may be a little too much for some tastes. He conveys his menace without recourse to any excessive histrionics; with a stage presence such as this it’s no surprise that Rocco is in thrall to him. As Rocco, Christof Fischesser is very convincing as a fundamentally decent man obliged through fear to obey Pizarro. Rachel Harmisch excels as Rocco’s daughter. She’s a very fine Marzelline; her opening scene opposite Christoph Strehl’s Jaquino is very well done by both singers. Towards the end of the opera Peter Mattei gives a dignified portrayal of Don Fernando.

The men of the Arnold Schoenberg Chor deliver a superb Prisoners’ Chorus. Their hushed singing at the start makes a tremendous impression. They are really believable as men coming out into the light with a mixture of delight and trepidation. The tenor section is particularly impressive, as it is when the full choir is deployed for the finale.

I mentioned the orchestral playing near the start of the review. It’s absolutely marvellous. A dramatic and finely shaped account of the overture sets the tone for the playing that’s to follow. Under Abbado’s wise and inspiring direction the playing is full of life and there’s conspicuous attention to detail. The horns and woodwind give particular pleasure but the whole band is magnificent. Unlike some conductors, Abbado does not interpolate the Leonora No 3 overture into Act II. That’s absolutely the right decision in the context of this performance but with an orchestra of this calibre on hand to play it one feels a tiny bit of regret for what might have been. The hushed orchestral introduction to the Prisoners’ Chorus is breathtaking, establishing a real tension, which the singers then take over. And then again at the end of Act I the quiet ending is superbly delivered by this first rate orchestra. As Act II opens they are inspired by Abbado to suggest the oppressive surroundings of the dungeon almost tangibly.

Abbado’s direction seems to me to be flawless. He has the surest possible feel for the drama; the pacing is consistently ideal. Although he ensures that all the detail is brought out you never feel this is at the expense of the flow of the music; he always has the Big Picture in view. Coordination between pit and stage is excellent at all times. In short this is conducting of the very highest order.

There are several highlights in the opera, to which I’ve referred above. However, one passage caught my ear so firmly that when I first played through the set I stopped the disc and repeated the passage immediately. It’s the section near the end of Act II, immediately following Leonora’s ‘O Gott! - Welch ein Augenblick’ and Florestan’s response ‘O unaussprechlich süsses Glück!’ – both lines movingly delivered. Then comes the short, subdued ensemble (Track 8, 6:34 – 9:40), a stroke of genius on Beethoven’s part as the singers express rapt joy. The quiet dynamics and the wonderfully lyrical writing, not least in the orchestra, make this a profound and affecting passage. It is superbly conducted by Abbado and marvellously sung and played - all very moving. It’s an ideal demonstration of the high pedigree of this recording. The jubilant final pages, with Kaufmann in ringing voice, are all the more effective as a result of the way that this preceding passage has been handled.

This magnificent performance has been captured in first-rate sound by Decca. Because it’s a concert performance there are no distracting stage noises. Furthermore, I could detect no audience noise at all, even when listening through headphones. There’s no applause.

With magnificent singing and playing and a great conductor on the podium this set is a winner. I’ve a great admiration for both of Klemperer’s recordings – the studio traversal (EMI - review) and the live Covent Garden version (Testament). However, I’ve never felt so drawn in to Beethoven’s drama before, nor so convinced by it. The arrival of this Fidelio in the catalogue is an event of major importance and surely this will be one of the most important releases of 2011. I urge you to hear it.


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