Forbes Robinson, bass (Don Fernando), Hans Hotter, bass-baritone (Don Pizarro), Jon Vickers, tenor (Florestan), Sena Jurinac, soprano (Leonore), Gottlob Frick, bass (Rocco), Elsie Morison, soprano (Marzelline), John Dobson, tenor (Jaquino); Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond.
Testament SBT2 1328 (2 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT: 2:22:42

István Koszò, baritone (Don Fernando), Oszkár Maleczky, baritone (Don Pizarro), Endre Rösler, tenor (Florestan), Anna Báthy, soprano (Leonore), Mihály Székely, bass (Rocco), Mária Mátyás, soprano (Marzelline), Gyula Angyl Nagy, tenor (Jaquino); Chorus and Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera, Otto Klemperer, cond. SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (“Unfinished”). Budapest Symphony Orch/Otto Klemperer, cond. BACH: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050. Annie Fischer, piano; Budapest Symphony Orch./ Otto Klemperer, cond.
Urania URN 22.246 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD?) TT: 2:14:27

In the late winter of 1962 Otto Klemperer conducted his landmark EMI studio recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio (EMI 5 67364 2). Klemperer’s monumental interpretation, superbly executed by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra and a magnificent cast, including Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers, Walter Berry, and Gottlob Frick, resulted in one of the finest recordings this opera has ever received. For many, this writer included, Klemperer’s EMI Fidelio remains the top choice.
The year before, Klemperer led a triumphant series of performances of the opera at Covent Garden. Klemperer hoped that the entire cast of the 1961 Covent Garden Fidelios would join him for the studio recording. As it turned out, only Jon Vickers and Gottlob Frick repeated their Covent Garden roles for the EMI microphones.
Now Testament has issued the 24 February 1961 Fidelio from Covent Garden. The monophonic sound, while not the equal of the 1962 stereo recording, is clear, full-bodied, and well-balanced. This is fortunate, because the Covent Garden performance is a glorious achievement, well worth acquiring, even if you already own the EMI studio recording.

The Covent Garden performances marked Sena Jurinac’s debut in the role of Leonore. That same year Jurinac recorded the role for Westminster Records. The conductor was Hans Knappertsbusch, who leads what must be the slowest Fidelio on disc. The combination of the atmosphere of the theater, and freedom from Knappertsbusch’s glacial tempi make Jurinac’s Covent Garden Leonora preferable in every way. She is in marvelous, radiant voice, and, with the exception of a brief moment of uncertainty at the end of “Abscheulicher!” manages to surmount all of the role’s considerable challenges with aplomb. Jurinac delivers both the spoken dialogue and music with the utmost conviction (her exclamation, “Er ist’s!”, upon confirming Florestan’s identity could melt a stone). Her Leonore is more than an archetypal figure. She is a passionate, heroic, and very human woman, who is willing to risk all to save the life of her husband—a triumphant interpretation of this extraordinarily demanding role, and a prime reason for acquiring the set.

Hans Hotter, who recently died at the age of 94, sings the role of the evil governor, Don Pizarro. By this stage of his career Hotter’s voice had taken on a rather wooly and unfocused quality, particularly in the upper register. But Hotter was someone who, more often than not, could overcome vocal shortcomings through the power of his musicianship and interpretive genius. That is certainly the case in this Fidelio. From his very entrance Hotter establishes Pizarro as a demonic authority figure, a person who instills fear in anyone who encounters him (see if Hotter’s spoken commands just before his duet with Rocco don’t have the same effect on you). There have been better-sung Pizarros on record, but few, if any, match Hotter’s gripping dramatic power. Elsie Morison’s lovely Marzelline is superior to Ingeborg Hallstein on the EMI recording. It would be hard to top Gerhard Unger’s excellent Jacquino, but the fine lyric tenor John Dobson acquits himself very well in the Covent Garden performance.

Jon Vickers cracks briefly during the recitative of his opening aria. Otherwise he is in prime vocal form, singing and acting with his unique timbre and focused passion. Vickers is a first-rate Florestan in the EMI recording. But for me the tenor was always at his best in front of an audience, not just because he was such an intense performer, but the size and timbre of his voice also were not flattered by close microphone placement. There is just that extra degree of intensity in his Covent Garden Florestan that makes it preferable to the studio effort. Likewise, Gottlob Frick, as Rocco, is in fine voice, and even more involved than in the EMI recording.

Klemperer’s overall conception of the score is similar to the studio recording. He manages to align moderate tempos with a gripping sense of forward momentum. It’s true that in the heat of the moment, the Covent Garden Orchestra doesn’t play with quite the precision and unanimity of the Philharmonia in the EMI recording (the booklet for the Testament set contains some engaging anecdotes from orchestra members about the challenges of following Klemperer’s unorthodox beat). But the Orchestra still plays quite well. The inclusion of a glorious performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3 is a welcome bonus, as is the greater amount of dialogue than in the EMI set.
The two accompanying booklets contain a complete libretto with the original German text and English translation, essays by Klemperer, Mike Ashman, Alan Blyth, a plot synopsis, and several interesting photos of cast members and the production. While I still think the EMI studio recording remains a first choice for Fidelio, this Covent Garden performance is among the handful of the best recordings this opera has received, and its unique qualities make it worthy of purchase.

The Testament release now gives us the happy prospect of two superb Otto Klemperer recordings of Beethoven's only opera. What, then, is the value of the new Urania issue of a 1948 Fidelio, also conducted by Klemperer, but in rather muddy sound, without dialogue, and sung in Hungarian translation?

Quite simply, this is one of the most spellbinding renditions of the opera I’ve ever heard. People familiar with Klemperer’s later work might be hard-pressed to believe the same conductor is leading the 1948 performance. Here Klemperer consistently favors tempos that are markedly faster than in the 1960s recordings, often shockingly so. By way of example, the Fidelio Overture in Klemperer’s EMI recording clocks in at 6:54. In the Covent Garden performance, it lasts 6:51. The Hungarian State Opera performance is more than a full minute faster, at 5:44! Not only are the tempos remarkably fleet, they are executed with breathtaking intensity. From the very first notes of the Overture, Klemperer grips the audience, and doesn’t let it go until the final triumphant chorus.

Klemperer’s driving interpretation is superbly executed by the Hungarian State Opera Chorus Orchestra. The soloists are all up to the task as well, singing with technical accomplishment and fervor. For reasons I’ve already mentioned, this recording of Fidelio could not possibly rank as a first choice. Additionally, this performance is such an intense experience that I really believe it should be sampled on occasion, as a comparative version to more mainstream interpretations. But it will certainly occupy an important place in my Fidelio library, and it might find a similar status in yours as well. Excellent Klemperer renditions of the Schubert 8th (in many ways as intense as the Fidelio) and the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 only sweeten the enticement. The booklet contains no texts or translations, just an essay about the performance.

K.M. (December 2003)