Beethoven: Fidelio
Hans Braun, baritone (Don Fernando); Paul Sch–ffler, baritone (Don Pizarro); Hans Hopf, tenor (Florestan); Birgit Nilsson, soprano (Leonora); Gottlob Frick, bass (Rocco); Ingeborg Wenglor, soprano (Marzelline); Gerhard Unger, tenor (Jaquino). Cologne Radio Chorus, Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Erich Kleiber, cond.
Koch Schwann 3-1641 (2 CDs)  (B) (ADD) TT: 1:55:37
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This Fidelio, recorded in January of 1956 for broadcast by the West German Radio, Cologne, proved to be a valedictory effort on the part of the great Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber who died of a heart attack January 27, 1956, at the age of 65. As this Fidelio demonstrates, Kleiber was still very much at the height of his powers. Indeed, it is Kleiber's inspired direction that constitutes one of the principal reasons for acquiring this thrilling performance.

Those who are familiar with Kleiber's great recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies (indeed, with the conductor's work in general) will probably know what to expect in this Fidelio.  He takes a no-nonsense approach to the score, coupling generally brisk tempos with incisive and pungent attacks. Always known as a severe taskmaster, Kleiber demands and receives a performance of admirable cohesion and discipline, both from the vocalists and the orchestra. These assets, coupled with the conductor's subtle and judicious application of rubato, as well as an unerring sense of forward progress, create a performance of extraordinary tension and momentum.  Indeed, Kleiber captures the inevitability of the music's forward progress as well as any conductor I've heard.

The conductor's superb direction lends support to outstanding performances by several of the principals, as well as the Cologne Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. The young Birgit Nilsson is, quite simply, a spectacular Leonora. The voice is clearly of  heroic proportions, but also quite warm and beautiful. The coloratura poses absolutely no difficulties for this remarkable artist, who handles the technical difficulties of Leonora's music with almost frightening ease. And for those who think of Nilsson as a somewhat austere singer, I highly recommend this Fidelio to disabuse them of that notion. Nilsson's Cologne Leonora is one of the most involved and radiant ever committed to disc; I certainly prefer it to her impressive 1964 London recording under Lorin Maazel.

Also outstanding is Gottlob Frick whose dark, oaken bass is in absolutely prime estate. The great character tenor Gerhard Unger, with his lovely youthful voice, crystal-clear diction, and lively temperament, is an ideal Jaquino. Paul Sch–ffler, a venerable Don Pizarro, creates a villain of frightening malevolence. Only the occasional spread upper note betrays the fact that Sch–ffler was in the autumn of a great career when he made this recording. Ingeborg Wenglor is a lovely Marzelline, although a bit pressed by melismatic passages. Hans Braun contributes a noble Don Fernando.

I suspect that Hans Hopf's Florestan will be the most controversial of the principal singers. I have always found the tenor's unique combination of his baritonal lower and middle registers with a brilliant top to be fascinating, and quite often compelling. His Max in Weber's Der Freischütz (for Wilhelm Furtw”ngler in Salzburg in 1954 and Kleiber in Cologne the following year), as well as his Bayreuth Siegfried under Kempe in 1960, demonstrate that Hopf could be a valuable artist. On the other hand, many of Hopf's performances contain distressing moments of wayward intonation, clumsy attacks, and beefy, unattractive tone.  In this Fidelio we get a little bit of both the good and the bad. Throughout, Hans Hopf gives a performance of admirable intensity and commitment. The entire Prison Scene goes rather well, although Hopf too often resorts to aspirates rather than a pure legato approach to phrasing. In the finale, Hopf's voice becomes less focused, with a resulting decline in attractive vocal quality. If you generally don't like Hans Hopf, you will probably not find much in this Fidelio to change your mind. But those who are more favorably disposed to this controversial singer will, I think, find much to enjoy.

I find the biggest drawback of this performance to be Kleiber's choice of having the opera's spoken dialogue delivered not by the singers but by a group of actors. Although the actors deliver the text quite well, their voices do not really sound like those of the singers (could anyone duplicate Gottlob Frick's timbre?). This is particularly jarring in moments where there are close juxtapositions of spoken dialogue with musical numbers, the Melodram in the Prison Scene providing the most distressing example. While the use of actors does not destroy the efforts of Kleiber and his wonderful musicians, I did find it an unnecessary distraction.

Kleiber does not include the third Leonore Overture, often inserted by conductors before the opera's final scene. The recorded sound is generally good, with admirable warmth, detail, and a good balance between vocalists and orchestra. Louder high notes do occasionally bring some distortion. The production uses a number of sound effects, generally to convincing effect.

The contributions of Kleiber and many of the principal singers make this a strong contender among recorded Fidelios. I think it would prove to be a worthy complement to Otto Klemperer's 1962 EMI recording, still my favorite version of the opera. And if you are in the expensive habit, as I am, of collecting performances of this flawed masterpiece, I recommend the Kleiber Fidelio without reservation.

K.M. (Augus 2001)