Notes and Editorial Reviews
Recorded by Bayreuth Radio on January 30, 1979, this is one of the most impressive releases I have encountered in Orfeo's ongoing series of live performances. For one thing the sound is uncommonly fine for its vintage: natural, wide-range, and (of greatest significance) projecting a compelling aura of theater. As the chains rattle in the dungeon scene, for instance, the dank coldness is almost physically palpable. Moreover, despite perceptible stage movement, none of the singers (in contrast to many live-opera recordings) is ever disturbingly off-mike.
All this would be for naught were the performance less distinguished than it is. Böhm, of course, was no stranger to this work. It held a central place in his repertory, and he has been represented by two previous recordings of the opera, one with a mixed but interesting cast from 1944— first issued on LP by Vox and later on CD by Preiser. Given its execrable sound, it remains, at best, a curio. The conductor made a studio version in 1969 in Dresden, which has been reissued in budget DG Masterpieces set (447 925 -2). Fine as that account was, this one is even finer, partly because of its greater theatrical ambiance, but also because its cast is more uniformly commanding. James King is the only singer common to both performances, and his Florestan is here more secure and (possibly owing to slightly closer, better focused sound) more characterful. Typical in this regard is his initial "Gott, welch Dunkel hier," which suggests even greater pathos than before. And Hildegard Behrens is at once technically proficient and aptly wide-ranging in her projection of Leonore's wrath and tenderness.
With the rest of the cast more than adequate, this performance might rank with the finest available were it not for one flaw that stamps both of Böhm's previous recordings and all of the performances I heard him direct at the Metropolitan Opera—an untoward tendency to rush through the two scenes preceding the (also rushed ) Leonore No. 3. This proves particularly damaging to the "O namenlose Freude" duet, neutralizing the sensual ethos of one of the opera's most touching moments. Similarly, the finale is sometimes pushed so hard it threatens to race out of control. These passages are paced far more judiciously in a number of recordings, ranging from the historical mono accounts of Furtwängler and Toscanini to the more recent ones of Klemperer and Sir Colin Davis. Indeed, for many, the Klemperer remains the performance against which all others must be judged. But it lacks the theatrical ambiance of this live account, which, whatever its shortcomings, should prove attractive to anyone who cares about one of the most glorious (and sometimes undervalued) works in the Beethoven canon. It is unfortunate, given this release's inclusion of all the dialogue, that it omits a libretto. In its stead is a synopsis of the plot, the only blot on an otherwise distinguished production.
Mortimer H. Frank, Fanfare Magazine