GHCD 2269/70 – FIDELIO – Beethoven – Fidelio – Flagstad – Maison – Metropolitan Opera – 1941

Metropolitan Opera, Chorus & Orchestra, Bruno Walter – conductor, Kirstin Flagstad, René Maison, Alexander Kipnis, Julius Huehn, Karl Laufkoetter, Marita Farell, Herbert Janssen

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MusicWeb 22.6.04

You should lose no opportunity to acquaint yourself with Walter’s fast-moving humanity and his intense identification a work that bore more than usual weight and resonance at the time. …
This Fidelio comes hot on the heels of a rival Naxos transfer, by Ward Marston, which used Austrian Radio broadcast material. I should note at the outset that I’ve not heard the Naxos and can’t at this stage comment on Guild’s claim that their alternative source is superior to the mastertape they provided for Naxos, and which they say didn’t represent it well.

The performance, as distinct from any arguments regarding sonics, is utterly compelling and well deserves the kind of concentrated attention it’s now receiving. At the head stands the kinetic Bruno Walter. It’s not a word one would ordinarily think to use of him, much less his older post-War self, but his drive and passionate command in this score was incendiary, Walter whipping up the band and singers in a fast, linear, directional and profoundly exciting way (it’s not all razor sharp tempi of course; he relaxes where necessary – but the sense is one of forward momentum). As his New York Beethoven Symphonic cycle was a few years later to show his command of linear development was profound – and sculpted with considerably more dynamism than the Walter of the following decade, by which performances he tends to be judged. If proof were needed of his operatic mastery I would cite this Fidelio and the 1937 Vienna performance of The Marriage of Figaro (on Andante) – a performance that outdoes even his Met Figaro of 1944.

He had a strong, not flawless cast but one never less than compelling. At the head stands Flagstad. In his notes Richard Caniell fights a retrospective rearguard battle in defence of Lotte Lehmann in this role, citing her greater sense of humanity over Flagstad’s intense reserve. In fact the Met’s original 1936 preference for Flagstad, who’d burst on the Wagnerian scene, so upset Lehmann that she apparently said she’d never appear again as Leonore at the Met. Notwithstanding questions of pliancy of characterisation Flagstad is in technically superb voice. She manages to colour the voice with considerable expressivity even though it could be argued, and successfully I think, that her recitatives lack the last ounce of engagement. Melchior isn’t here; he wasn’t offered the role lest it “offend the tenors of the Italian wing” but we do have Maison, a hero of the Met Wagner cycles. Opinions divide over his assumption of the role; Caniell isn’t overly keen but others admire his grandeur. I happen to admire both the quality of the voice and its sustenance, retaining strength across the range as it does, though equally, yes, I’d like to have heard Melchior opposite Flagstad (or Lehmann). Another noted Wagnerian, tenor Karl Laufkötter, also impresses through force of character as much as anything – the voice was never particularly beautiful but it was deployed with real reserves of imagination. As Rocco Kipnis employs his big voice with exceptional flexibility – his theatrical instincts are sure, as we hear time and again in this performance, and the voice is at its magnificent best. Not to be overlooked is Marita Farell’s Marzelline – most impressively sung – and American born Huehn (what a loss that he recorded so infrequently and that his career lost ground after the War) and Herbert Janssen’s notable Don Fernando.

But above all this is Walter’s Fidelio in only his second Met performance. And you should lose no opportunity to acquaint yourself with his fast-moving humanity, and his intense identification with every fissure of a work that bore more than usual weight and resonance at the time. I would be remiss if I overlooked Guild’s excellent booklet, with performance histories, synopsis and cast notes and their usual high quality photographs.
Jonathan Woolf

Dear Mr. Woolf,

The competing Fidelio to which I refer in my recording notes in the  Guild booklet is my own restoration published on Naxos 8.110054-55. The one by Ward Marston (a marvelous engineer) is not the same performance as the 1941 broadcast.

The Guild release of the 1941 performance differs in sonics from my earlier release on Naxos in many portions, specifically beginning in the Act I quartet, and thereafter yielding more air, body and improved tone. I could also hear in our later source superiority in the opening commentary as well as later in the second act, thus I decided the improvement over my earlier release on Naxos was justified.

Your juxtaposition between Guild and a recent Naxos release  engineered by Mr. Marston will surely confuse purchasers. Would you clarify in your text, or place this letter on the site with an
appropriate reference?

Many thanks for your interest and expressive reviews.

Best wishes,
Richard Caniell

Music Web  22.05.04

This performance has previously been available on ‘Music and Arts’ and ‘Naxos Historical’ labels, the latter deriving from Immortal Performance Recorded Music Society sources, as does this Guild issue. In his ‘Recording Notes’ (p.22 of the booklet) restorer Richard Caniell mentions that he has obtained ‘a source that out-classed all other versions (including our previous master) for sonic size and silent surfaces. This discovery justified new restoration work and the Guild release on CD’.

Collectors will be aware of Mr Caniell’s philosophy for these Guild issues. It involves no filtering, compression, limiting or any other digital intervention. I have not, however, been in a position to carry out a direct comparison with the issues on the labels referred to. I must therefore limit myself to commenting that this 2003 restoration has good clarity, silent surfaces and a wider dynamic than many recordings derived from Met broadcasts of that period. The solo voices and chorus are particularly well caught in terms of tone and body.

The popularity of this performance among collectors is owed to the presence of Kirsten Flagstad as Leonore and Bruno Walter on the podium. Three broadcasts of Flagstad’s portrayal are available, the earliest dating from 1936 which is in poor sound. However, the 1938 New Year’s Eve performance is sonically acceptable and is felt by some to better represent Flagstad’s portrayal than this 1941 version; a view Caniell disputes (p.7). Purists rule out the 1938 performance because the conductor, Bodansky, substituted his own recitatives for the spoken dialogue, as had Berlioz and Balfe a century earlier. The practice died with Bodansky.

Leonore was reputed to be one of Kirsten Flagstad’s favourites. Her silvery tone and infinite capacity for vocal weight throughout the register, without tonal deterioration, is ideal for a role that has also drawn mezzos with a good top. In this she joins Christa Ludwig for Klemperer (EMI ‘GROC’) and Jessye Norman for Haitink (Philips), the latter version marred by Reiner Goldberg’s poor rendering of Florestan. Despite her good top, Flagstad’s ‘Abscheulicher’, an aria which can tax mezzos, is not as secure at its climax (CD 1, tr.18, 7:22) as I would have expected. Nevertheless the audience show their appreciation. The Belgian tenor René Maison was, to the chagrin of Melchior enthusiasts, Flagstad’s regular partner at the Met. More a dramatic tenor than a ‘heldentenor’, his weight of voice should have been ideal for the role of Florestan. However, here he has moments of raw and throaty tone and in his aria he is far too frenetic (CD2 tr.11). As the gaoler Rocco, Alexander Kipnis is too authoritative in his dialogue (CD1 tr.3). This spills over into the following quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ (tr. 4) which makes his jolly, rather than persuasive, ‘Hat man nicht’ (tr. 9) sound rather incongruous. However, the stable tone and good diction he brings to the role are welcome. The Pizarro of Julius Huehn is steady and suitably threatening although as with his Friedrich on Guild’s recent issue of the 1940 broadcast ‘Lohengrin’ I find his voice lacks sap. As the young suitor Jaquino, Karl Laufkoetter is adequate though without much grace in his tone. The Marzelline of Marita Farell (a role she also assumed in the 1938 performance) is too full-toned for my ideal. I much prefer a lighter and more flexible voice for what we understand is a young girl.

As for Bruno Walter, his reading is dramatic but at times over-driven and is in no way more distinguished than Bodansky, although I like his shaping of the Leonore No. 3 (CD2 tr.9). There are minor cuts in the music and dialogue. All in all I do not find the distinction in Kirsten Flagstad’s performance is such as to justify the reputation of this performance to many collectors. However, for those who take a contrary view and are drawn to her voice and Walter’s interpretation, the recording here is one of the finest I have heard from this period. The booklet has good essays by Richard Caniell including Flagstad’s performances as Leonore at the Met, and a track-related synopsis.
Robert J Farr