A Perfect Foursome

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Perfect Foursome


Byline: DAVID MELLOR

Beethoven: Fidelio (Testament, two CDs) Puccini: Tosca (EMI, two CDs) ***** Bellini: I Puritani (EMI, two CDs) Leoncavallo: Pagliacci (EMI)

Aquartet of unimpeachable recordings this week; enough to give opera lovers the Christmas of a lifetime if any, or ideally all of them, end up in their stockings.

Ted Heath thinks Fidelio is the greatest of all operas, and it's easy to see why. Beethoven laboured long and hard over this, his only opera, and much of the best of him went into it.

Furthermore, although there are some light moments, the opera is primarily concerned with the great themes of freedom from oppression and the overwhelming, self-sacrificing power of true love.

For more than 40 years Otto Klemperer's 1962 studio recording has reigned supreme, but it is now challenged by another version from him. This one is a live BBC recording made the previous year at the first night of a new Covent Garden production. At the time it caused a huge stir, and at long last, thanks to Testament Records, we can hear why.

The cast is well drilled because Klemperer demanded lots of rehearsal time, and all bar two - Jon Vickers as the imprisoned Florestan and Gottlob Frick as the jailer Rocca - are different from the studio recording. In almost all respects the live cast is preferable. Although her voice is a shade too light for the role, I love the freshness and fervour of Sena Jurinac as Fidelio, while the great Hans Hotter as the evil Don Pizarro is unsurpassable. His act one duet with Frick makes your hair stand on end, while Vickers turns in the kind of performance you just don't hear these days.

Klemperer himself is much more alert before a live audience, and this is now the one to have. For the last 20 years of his life he was regarded as the greatest living Beethoven conductor. His ability to manipulate the composer's great blocks of sound was second to none, although quite how he did it was a mystery.

His shaking hands appeared to indicate no beat at all, but singers and players alike were inspired.

At this time Klemperer was disabled by an operation to remove a brain tumour; had further harmed himself by falling off a podium, and had set light to himself in bed with a carelessly stubbed-out cigarette. …

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