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A digital Fidelio to stand up to Klemperer?,
This review is from: Beethoven: Fidelio (Audio CD)
(Before I start I should probably say that this is a HYBRID SACD which works on any CD player.)
A strong digital recording of Fidelio is long overdue. Since the release of the mighty Klemperer recording 45 years ago, nothing has really come close. On paper, this latest effort from Sir Colin Davis and the LSO, with a super cast of soloists, looks extremely promising, but do they pull it off in performance?
The first concern when we talk about an LSO recording is the recording quality itself. The Barbican acoustic is notoriously problematic, and despite changes to the hall, the LSO Live sounds often far from the "spectacular sound quality" advertised. Here however, to my great satisfaction, we have one of the highest quality recordings I have ever heard; the voices and orchestra are recorded in thrilling clarity and warmth. Sir Colin Davis' frequent grunts and hums are also picked up, as overstated so irritatingly in BBC Music Magazine's recent review. They are audible but not intrusive (comparisons with Glenn Gould are preposterous) and should not detract from the performance.
The orchestra itself often divides the critics. Though the LSO always seems to play with great accuracy, they are occasionally accused of a lack of involvement in their performances. In this case they are simply beyond criticism. They play absolutely magnificently, sounding completely involved at every turn with both faultless ensemble and a great depth of feeling (the D major climax in the duet "O namenlose Freude" carries quite extraordinary power). Special mention must go to the winds, in particular Emmanuel Abbuehl's divine oboe solos and the ethereal tone of principal flute Gareth Davies. The LSO Chorus' singing matches the standard set by the orchestra, very moving in the first act prison scene and wonderfully joyful in the final chorus.
The cast is very strong. In Christine Brewer we have without question the finest Leonore around at the moment, singing with a depth of feeling to match her formidable technique; she captures both Leonore's heartbreak and incredible courage with utter conviction. Sally Matthews, too, is a super Marzelline, agile and feisty and with a beautifully warm tone (a Leonore in the making perhaps). John Mac Master's Florestan is successful, though by no means perfect. On the one hand he doesn't quite plumb the depths of emotion like Jon Vickers does for Klemperer (though he's not that far off), and his tone is not always very beautiful, but on the plus side he makes Vickers' voice sound like a most unwieldy instrument in comparison - has any tenor ever hit the top A's in "O namenlose Freude" so accurately? Kristinn Sigmundsson was a late stand-in for Rocco but sings very capably (though I miss the warmth and playfulness of Robert Lloyd in the first act) and Juha Uusitalo is a very menacing Pizarro without descending into caricature. The total lack of Germans in the cast is a disadvantage; Mac Master in particular has one or two very dodgy pronunciation moments. The spoken dialogue in concert performances is rarely engaging, and this recording is no exception. I don't tend to listen to it anyway, but don't expect anything exceptional if you do.
Sir Colin Davis' interpretation came as something of a surprise. Though he captures all the emotional depth of his traditional Klemperer-style 'romantic' approach, he combines this with brisker tempos and a slightly leaner, punchier sound, especially from the brass ("Es schlaegt der Rache Stunde" has a terrific bite). All this is done without the slightest mannerism or idiosyncrasy as we sometimes find from other conductors. The overall result is extremely satisfying. There are some moments which lack the urgency that Klemperer brings to the score (the "Nun sprech, wie ging's?" sounds rather relaxed for example) and I feel Davis could have brought rather more humour to Rocco's "Hat man nicht auf Gold beineben", incongruous though it feels in the wider scope of the opera. But these are the only things I can find to criticise about his interpretation; there is so much to enjoy; there are so many moments of enormous feeling and beauty, from the warmth and phrasing of the strings at the heartbreaking "Ich bin es nur noch nicht gewohnt" to the pure expression of joy captured in "O namenlose Freude" and in the final chorus.
Is it as good as the Klemperer? Not quite perhaps, but this recording is surely worth getting for the stunning orchestral playing and superb singing (especially Brewer's Leonore) captured in very high-quality sound. I had the good fortune of witnessing Davis working with the LSO in rehearsal soon after these concert performances, and the rapport and mutual respect between conductor and orchestra was clear. Here it is captured in an inspired perforance, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly.