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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Fidelio, Op. 72 (Modl, Windgassen, Furtwangler) (1953)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Born in Bonn in 1770, Beethoven received his early musical education from his father, a singer, and several mediocre teachers. When only nine years old he became pupil and assistant to the court organist to the Elector of Bonn. He travelled to Vienna in 1786 with the intention of studying with Mozart, but, with his mother’s final illness, was recalled to Bonn, where he played the viola in the court orchestra, and found a patron in Count Waldstein, among others. Haydn, visiting Bonn in 1792, saw some of his compositions and invited him to study with him in Vienna. Beethoven moved there in that year and first lived in the household of Prince Lichnowsky. At this time he was known primarily as a virtuoso improviser at the keyboard. His fame as a composer was established with the publication in 1795 of his Opus 1 piano trios. He remained in Vienna for the rest of his life, producing a steady stream of music in all the principal forms. From 1798 onwards he suffered from increasing deafness, which may explain why he never married. His Third Symphony, the Eroica, was originally dedicated to Napoleon, but the composer withdrew this on hearing that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor. The Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were first performed at the same concert in 1808. Two of his greatest works were the Ninth Symphony, which broke general precedent by including a chorus and soloists in the finale, and the Missa Solemnis. Both were first performed in 1824. He was held in the highest esteem in Vienna, and in 1815 the city conferred its honorary freedom on him. When he died in 1827, his funeral was an occasion for national mourning.
Beethoven’s significance in the history of music is immense. He democratised the rôle of the composer, writing music out of inner necessity rather than to commission. He was not a quick worker and often struggled to develop his ideas. Fidelio, his only opera, was first performed in Vienna with himself conducting in 1805, and underwent revision during the following year and in 1814. In it Beethoven took a popular operatic genre of the time, the ‘rescue opera’, and created a work which completely transcended the forms and expectations of the period. Fidelio is a passionate hymn to married love, a state which the composer himself yearned for but never achieved, a searing indictment of the dangers of absolute power, and a bold declaration of freedom which has spoken continuously to oppressed societies since it was first composed.
The plot is straightforward: Leonore has disguised herself as a youth Fidelio and has become assistant to the jailer Rocco, in the hope of finding her imprisoned husband Florestan. Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline, is in love with Fidelio, to the annoyance of her suitor, Jacquino. The prison governor Pizarro learns of an impending inspection and decides to kill Florestan. Rocco refuses to carry out the murder but agrees to dig the grave. Leonore learns of the plot, and as the prisoners emerge into the sunlight, searches in vain for her husband. In the second act Leonore and Rocco descend to the dungeon where Florestan lies in chains. Pizarro tries to kill Florestan, but is prevented at pistolpoint by Leonore, who reveals her true identity. With the arrival of the inspecting minister, Don Fernando, Pizarro is arrested and the prisoners are freed. Leonore releases Florestan’s shackles herself.
EMI’s 1953 studio recording of Fidelio, produced by Walter Legge, was made immediately after a series of performances given by largely the same forces at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, where the very first performance of Fidelio had taken place in 1805. The first night of the 1953 production was recorded and this recording has been published, thus allowing a comparison to be made of Furtwängler’s performances of the same work in close proximity, and in the theatre and the recording studio. Wilhelm Furtwängler was the pre-eminent German conductor of the twentieth century. He was born into a cultured middle-class German family and was educated privately. He was fascinated by Beethoven and is reputed to have memorised most of his works by the time he was twelve years old. He made his conducting début in Munich in 1906, and after working as a coach at the Zurich and Munich opera houses, went on to serve his apprenticeship as a conductor with the opera companies of Strasbourg, Lübeck and Mannheim. He made his début in Vienna in 1919. The following year he was appointed conductor of the concerts of the Frankfurt and Berlin State Opera Orchestras, and in 1922, after the death of Arthur Nikisch, he became chief conductor of both the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras. He succeeded Weingartner as the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1928, the year in which he relinquished his Leipzig post. Henceforth most of his activities were centered upon the two principal orchestras of Berlin and Vienna. He remained in Germany throughout the Third Reich, and in early 1945 escaped to Switzerland when it became clear that his life was in danger. He was forbidden by the allies from conducting until the end of 1946, when he was cleared of all allegations of collaboration with the Nazi government. From 1947 onwards, until his death at the end of 1954, Furtwängler was active in all the major European musical centres, in addition to recording for EMI.
The cast for Furtwängler’s Vienna performances and recording of Fidelio represented the cream of European opera singers of the period. The title rôle of Fidelio or Leonore was taken by Martha Mödl (1912–2001). She made her début as Hänsel at Remscheid in 1942, and between 1945 and 1949 sang mezzo-soprano rôles as a member of the Düsseldorf opera company. She joined the Hamburg State Opera in 1949 and began the change to dramatic soprano. She appeared with great success as Kundry and Isolde as well as Brünnhilde at the post-war Bayreuth Festivals, and appeared there regularly until 1967. She sang the rôle of Leonore at the re-opening of the Vienna State Opera in 1955. During the latter part of her career she appeared in several significant new operas by German and Austrian composers, and she remained a commanding presence on the operatic stage into her eighties.
The rôle of Florestan was taken by Wolfgang Windgassen (1914–1974). After studying with his father, he made his début in 1941 at Pforzheim as Alvaro in La forza del destino. Between 1945 and 1972 he was a loyal member of the Stuttgart Opera, while also pursuing a freelance career as the outstanding heldentenor of his generation. Like Mödl he participated in the first post-war Bayreuth Festival of 1951, singing Parsifal, and appeared annually at Bayreuth until 1970. The last two years of his life were spent as the director of the Stuttgart Opera.
Supporting these two pre-eminent singers were the two outstanding bass-baritones, Alfred Poell and Otto Edelmann, as the forces of good and evil, Don Fernando and Don Pizarro, the distinguished bass Gottlob Frick as the hapless jailer Rocco, and, as the young lovers Marzelline and Jaquino, Sena Jurinac and Rudolf Schock, both on the threshold of major international careers.
The present transfer was made from a combination of British and American LP pressings. The original master tape contains some noises and occasional distortion which can also be heard on EMI's own CD remastering.
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BEETHOVEN: Fidelio, Op. 72 (Modl, Windgassen, Furt...