Notes and Editorial Reviews
Haitink has conducted some inspiring performances of this work in the opera house. He, like Jessye Norman, has here distilled it for intense home-listening, and very vivid and involving it proves to be.
With understandable elation a conductor friend reported to me a little while back that his record company might let him do an opera. Nothing if not ambitious, his first idea was to press for Beethoven's Fidelio, but then perhaps unkindly I had to point out the competition—and at mid price too—from such as Klemperer and Karajan (both EMI), each with outstanding casts. Now comes Bernard Haitink, by any reckoning one of our leading Beethovenians today, and even a conductor of his stature must feel a chill wind in such
company, when those particular recordings are among the finest opera sets that either conductor put on disc. If the present set fails to displace them, it certainly has its place beside them, a strong, cleancut reading, marked by transparent textures, on the whole very well cast, and crowned by a grandly noble portrayal of the central figure of Leonore.
If it seems unlikely that this is a role which Jessye Norman will ever perform on stage—despite the fetchingly wide-eyed photo of her on the box-cover in costume complete with tricorn—then this recording brings none of the reservations which one had to make over her similarly studio-bound portrayal of Carmen. If, with its heavy underlining, something rang false in that Bizet performance, the role of Leonore is vocally an ideal one for Norman's unique voice, the noblest instrument of them all. As with conductors, the competition is intense, above all from the Leonores in the sets I have listed above—Christa Ludwig an inspired choice for Klemperer, fresh and firm, Helga Dernesch at her very peak for Karajan giving a passionate, impulsive performance, and Gundula Janowitz bringing lyrical beauty as well as strength for Bernstein (DG), but Norman's reading has a richness and epic scale, which is coupled with an ease in the upper register even beyond the others. It is thrilling to hear her rising effortlessly in power and beauty to the top Bs of ''Abscheulicher!'' (first disc, track 18, 3'53'' and 7'32''), and pinging home with not a flicker of hesitation on the B flat of ''Tot erst sein Weib!'' at the dramatic climax of the great quartet in Act 2 (second disc, track 6, 1'38'').
Norman's dominance—with every phrase conveying an intense facial expression—is established even before she begins to sing, for her speaking voice even in the brief lines she has in the dialogue before the canon quartet in Act 1, comes over with a magnetism to match that of her singing. Though no special mention is made of a stage producer or dramatic coach, the dialogue is exceptionally convincing and well-presented, leading on in tension from one number to the next, with each character very well defined. The recording was made in Dresden in November 1989, just at the time when the Berlin Wall was breached, and events in East Germany marked the end of the old regime with the very theme of Fidelio being enacted in reality. Plainly that affected the atmosphere behind the sessions, though Haitink as ever is a controlled rather than an inspirational or volatile Beethovenian, avoiding any hint of hysteria. That is so even at the end of Florestan's big aria, though that is in part a reflection of Reiner Goldberg's personality, a less outward-going singer than either Jon Vickers (for both Klemperer and Karajan) or Rene Kollo for Bernstein.
Haitink's control goes with a direct approach to the score, with far less moulding of phrase than with Karajan or Bernstein, and with the beauty of the line presented in simplicity, much closer to the manner of Klemperer and similarly magnetic. Haitink prefers steady speeds too. Sometimes, as in the canon quartet, an unusually slow speed treated very steadily threatens to undermine the sense of flow, but the concentration remains complete, so that the result is fresh and satisfying. It is notable too that in the performance of the Overture Leonore No. 3 that comes as an epilogue to Act 2 on the second disc, Haitink leads into the final coda without the usual rallentando, preferring to rely on the easing conveyed by a literal reading of the score.
If this may seem stodgy, that is not how it emerges, when the rugged strength characteristic of Haitink's Beethoven is consistently constrasted against the most refined, transparent textures, with the Staatskapelle Dresden playing beautifully. That clarity is occasionally masked by the warmly reverberant acoustic of the Lukaskirche in Dresden where the recording was made, but not nearly so much as I expected after the initial impact at the very start of the performance, when the opening motif of the Fidelio Overture leaves such a trail of echo. Otherwise, the spacious sound is most sympathetic, with the singers well-spaced.
The massed voices of the finale are given plenty of space, too, with the Dresden State Opera Chorus full and fresh. Haitink's reading of that culminating section is unusually brisk at the start, making it strong and thrustful rather than magisterial, with rhythms well-sprung, and with Don Fernando's monologue sounding more dramatic and less of an interpolation than it sometimes does. That is also partly owed to the fine, well-detailed singing of Andreas Schmidt. Then in contrast with the rest the sublime passage when Leonore removes Florestan's chains, ''O Gott! Welch ein Augenblick!'' is unusually slow and steady, rather in the manner of Haitink's reading of the canon quartet, similarly pure and simple. There are hints that Norman might want both those passages a fraction quicker.
As for the other casting, it would be hard to devise a better line-up from today's singers. Quite apart from Norman—who in herself provides a clear justification for the whole set—Kurt Moll makes a satisfyingly firm and strong Rocco, not as rounded in his characterization as Gottlob Frick was for Klemperer, but positive and sympathetic. As Pizarro, Ekkehard Wlaschiha is outstanding in every way, just as bitingly distinctive here with his firm, incisive voice as he was in the role of Alberich in The Ring, whether on record or on stage at Covent Garden. The pair of lovers are beautifully cast too, with Pamela Coburn—previously Siebel in Sir Colin Davis's Faust (Philips) and First Lady in Harnoncourt's Die Zauberflote (Teldec/Warner Classics)—attractively fresh and girlish, and Hans Peter Blochwitz aptly light and rounded as Jacquino, yet quite strong enough to fit well into the canon quartet.
There remains the Florestan of Reiner Goldberg, and as before with this singer, joy and disappointment are inextricably mixed. The shortage of heroic tenors makes one wonder whether there is anyone today better qualified for this role than he. The voice is certainly big enough, and there are some powerful moments. But too often in the middle register strain intrudes to produce an unpleasantly throttled sound. His characterization, too, is far more limited than that of Vickers or Kollo on the rival sets. Yet who else could Philips readily have chosen? All told, this is a noble set, very well recorded, easily the best digital version to date, which may lack the full weight of Klemperer's classic one, or the dramatic intensity of Karajan's, not quite as exciting as either, but which in its more controlled way provides an intensely satisfying reading of pure Beethoven. Though Haitink has conducted some inspiring performances of this work in the opera house, he, like Jessye Norman, has here distilled it for intense home-listening, and very vivid and involving it proves to be.
-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [1/1991]
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Works on This Recording
Fidelio, Op. 72 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Reiner Goldberg (Tenor),
Kurt Moll (Baritone),
Pamela Coburn (Soprano),
Hans-Peter Blochwitz (Tenor),
Ekkehard Wlaschiha (Baritone),
Andreas Schmidt (Baritone),
Egbert Junghanns (),
Jessye Norman (Soprano),
Wolfgang Millgramm ()
Dresden State Opera Chorus
Written: 1804/1814; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 11/1989
Venue: Dresden, Germany
Length: 133 Minutes 26 Secs.
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