Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is another fine installment in Chandos’s “Opera in English” series, a growingly important series of recordings funded by the Peter Moores Foundation making a wide range of operatic masterpieces available in the vernacular for English and American audiences. While most of these have no recorded English-language competition, Chandos has nonetheless lavished great care on the productions and the general level of performance has been very high. So it is with this Fidelio.
At the center is the astonishing Leonora of Christine Brewer—one of today’s great dramatic sopranos (and not yet fully recognized for her achievements). I heard her sing a Verdi Requiem in Minneapolis last June that ranked with some of the great Verdi
sopranos of the mid 20th century, and this Leonora is also a totally remarkable achievement. Brewer has power in all registers, a gleaming top that never turns harsh, an evenly produced and very grand sound, and the fluidity of technique to cope with her big aria. In addition, she sings with real feeling—conveying passion, tenderness, fury, and above all the grandeur of the character that Beethoven created here. This is a complete performance, one equaled by very few on recordings, whatever the language. Brewer is done in just a bit, however, by an audible edit near the end of her aria (at the 5:00 mark of track 11, disc 1). The only other performance on that level is Pavlo Hunka’s Pizarro. Where has he been hiding? His big, well-focused sound is shaped with intelligence and complete understanding of the text; I know of few Pizarro’s to equal this and none that surpass it. He is, despite his name, British, so his diction is clear and understandable.
If the rest of the performance were on the level of Brewer and Hunka this could have been a recording to compare with the classic Klemperer version (with Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers, EMI 5 67364 2). But, while no performance is less than adequate, not too many of the others are much better than that level either. Margison’s Florestan is strongly vocalized in a generalized way, but he doesn’t have the specificity of inflection of Brewer and Hunka, nor the sheer vocal force and/or distinctive timbre of the best Florestans (Vickers, McCracken, Patzak, Windberg, or Botha). Purves’s Fernando is well sung, but just a bit wooly in timbre. The rest are on a similarly satisfactory level, without any true standouts.
The central problem, to the extent that there is one, is David Parry’s conducting. I have lauded many of his earlier performances in this series—and to be sure there is nothing wrong with his musical leadership here. His tempos are generally sensible and decently paced, articulation is reasonably clean, dynamic shading is always sensitive, and yet it never really takes off. I listened to the performance a few times, trying to figure out just what was missing, and I am still not sure I can articulate it—but direct comparison with conductors like Klemperer, Boehm, Bernstein, Solti, Walter, and Furtwängler immediately demonstrates the lack of dramatic impact. As with some of the singers, it is a matter of specificity of musical inflection—of shaping a phrase with a clear inflection that relates to its place in the drama, and to the phrases that come before and after it. Others have managed to convey much more of the stifling life of Florestan in prison in the introduction to his aria, or the sense of menace underlying Pizarro’s aria, and the sheer outburst of joy at the conclusion. They do this by virtue of instrumental color, slight tempo modifications, and variety of instrumental articulation.
I want to emphasize that this is not bad conducting—it never drags, nor does it sound rushed or out of control. This is a more than adequate, satisfying reading that falls short of greatness, in an opera that has been treated to some very great conducting on disc. But if you want Fidelio in English (and I like David Pountney’s contemporary translation very much), this is a very recommendable set. Chandos’s usual spacious but clear sound is another asset, as are the illuminating notes and complete English text. Klemperer’s is still the stereophonic studio recording to have, in my view, with Furtwängler’s live Salzburg performance from 1950, with Flagstad and Patzak, a necessary second version (EMI CDHB 4901). Another recommendable live version is from Covent Garden in 1961, also with Klemperer and Vickers, but Jurinac instead of Ludwig (Testament SBT 21328).
Henry Fogel, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Fidelio, Op. 72 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Christine Brewer (Soprano),
Rebecca Evans (Soprano),
Richard Margison (Tenor),
Peter Wedd (Tenor),
Pavlo Hunka (Bass Baritone),
Robert Lloyd (Bass),
Christopher Purves (Bass),
Ashley Catling (Tenor)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Written: 1804/1814; Vienna, Austria
Notes: Composition written: Vienna, Austria (1804).
Composition revised: Vienna, Austria (1806).
Composition revised: Vienna, Austria (1814).
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