Friday, August 1, 2014

Otto Klemperer's 1962 Studio Recording of Beethoven's Fidelio

Our Summer 2014 Friday Blog and Podcasts reach into past musings. Today's post is a repeat of a Once or Twice a Fortnight from April 21st, 2012.

Some of the post's content and illustrations were changed to fit this month's thematic arc.

Related ArticleWhat made Beethoven dislike Fidelio so much?

My musing and musical selection to launch our month-long Beethoven Sumner Festival is Ludwig’s only opera, Fidelio. Much has been written about Fidelio, about how the subject matter resonated with the composer, and Beethoven’s own struggles with this particular opus. In a Friday blog and podcast from September 2011, I brought up a series of works by Beethoven that highlighted his inner sense of justice, and his embracing – and later denunciation – of Napoleon Bonaparte. When I think of the main theme of Fidelio (injustice, arbitrary justice, justice restored and love conquering impossible odds), I am well reminded of the works I discussed on that Friday, which all happen to start with the letter “E”: Egmont, Eroica and Emperor.

Indeed, Beethoven's Fidelio was written in a time when the French Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror were fresh in everyone's mind. There were many tales of unjust imprisonment and heroic rescues, but Beethoven's immediate source was a libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, Léonore, ou L'Amour conjugal which was set to music by Pierre Gaveaux in 1798. Years later, in his 1836 autobiography, Bouilly claimed the story was a true one and one in which he had actually participated while he was a judge of the Criminal Tribunal in Tours. However, no records justifying his assertions have ever come to light.

As an appetizer, I thought I would offer this YouTube playlist of a 1970 installment of the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts, where Leonard Bernstein discusses how Fidelio is a "flawed masterpiece", a stage work that has a bevy of problems...

As we all know, there are at least two complete stage versions of the opera: the first (op. 72a) is known as Leonore, and went through a number of revisions and rewrites to become the version we all know and love today (the op. 72b). A very real artifact of this struggle is the collection of four overtures Beethoven wrote for the stage versions of the opera (and, I am sure, there are a few more in sketch books that never made it to the stage).

Walter Legge (1906 –1979) was an influential English classical record producer, most notably for EMI. He worked in the recording industry beginning in 1927, was assistant to Sir Thomas Beechamat the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and in World War II played a role in bringing music to the armed forces and civilians.

After the war, Legge founded the Philharmonia Orchestra and worked for EMI as a recording producer. In its early years, the Philharmonia became closely identified with Herbert von Karajan, but when he turned his attentions to the Berlin Philharmonic, Legge worked more and more with Otto Klemperer, a famous conductor in the 1920s and 30s who had been out of the limelight until Legge revitalised his career. In its heyday in the 1950s the Philharmonia was widely rated as the finest British orchestra. In 1964, concerned at what he saw as falling standards, Legge disbanded the orchestra, which at once re-formed as the New Philharmonia, without him but with Klemperer as chief conductor.

Among some of the Legge/Philharmonia/Klemperer projects of note, there was a widely acclaimed Beethoven cycle and today’s recording of Fidelio featuring Christa Ludwig as Leonore and Canadian tenor Jon Vickers in the short but demanding role of Florestan.

Today’s performance is a version I edited from one of the many fine Friday Night at the Opera podcasts by Sacramento’s Capital Public Radio hosted by Sean Bianco. As part of this editing, I kept Sean’s spoken introductions to both acts (as separate tracks), so you can skip them if you wish. The original podcast can be found here.

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio, opera in two acts, op. 72b
German Libretto by Joseph von Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke from the libretto of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly Léonore ou l’amour conjugal


Christa Ludwig, Fidelio/Leonore
Jon Vickers, Florestan
Walter Berry, Pizarro
Ingeborg Hallstein, Marzelline
Gottlob Frick, Rocco

Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra
Otto Klemperer, conducting
(Studio recording, 1962)

Opera Synopsis:
Opera Libretto:

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