BEETHOVEN: Fidelio, Op. 72
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Born in Bonn in 1770, Beethoven received his earlymusical education from his father, a singer, and severalmediocre teachers. When only nine years old he becamepupil and assistant to the court organist to the Elector ofBonn. He travelled to Vienna in 1786 with the intentionof studying with Mozart, but, with his mother's finalillness, was recalled to Bonn, where he played the violain the court orchestra, and found a patron in CountWaldstein, among others. Haydn, visiting Bonn in1792, saw some of his compositions and invited him tostudy with him in Vienna. Beethoven moved there inthat year and first lived in the household of PrinceLichnowsky. At this time he was known primarily as avirtuoso improviser at the keyboard. His fame as acomposer was established with the publication in 1795of his Opus 1 piano trios. He remained in Vienna for therest of his life, producing a steady stream of music in allthe principal forms. From 1798 onwards he sufferedfrom increasing deafness, which may explain why henever married. His Third Symphony, the Eroica, wasoriginally dedicated to Napoleon, but the composerwithdrew this on hearing that Napoleon had declaredhimself Emperor. The Fifth and Sixth Symphonies werefirst performed at the same concert in 1808. Two of hisgreatest works were the Ninth Symphony, which brokegeneral precedent by including a chorus and soloists inthe finale, and the Missa Solemnis. Both were firstperformed in 1824. He was held in the highest esteem inVienna, and in 1815 the city conferred its honoraryfreedom on him. When he died in 1827, his funeral wasan occasion for national mourning.
Beethoven's significance in the history of music isimmense. He democratised the r?â??le of the composer,writing music out of inner necessity rather than tocommission. He was not a quick worker and oftenstruggled to develop his ideas. Fidelio, his only opera,was first performed in Vienna with himself conductingin 1805, and underwent revision during the followingyear and in 1814. In it Beethoven took a popularoperatic genre of the time, the 'rescue opera', andcreated a work which completely transcended the formsand expectations of the period. Fidelio is a passionatehymn to married love, a state which the composerhimself yearned for but never achieved, a searingindictment of the dangers of absolute power, and a bolddeclaration of freedom which has spoken continuouslyto oppressed societies since it was first composed.
The plot is straightforward: Leonore has disguisedherself as a youth Fidelio and has become assistant tothe jailer Rocco, in the hope of finding her imprisonedhusband Florestan. Rocco's daughter, Marzelline, is inlove with Fidelio, to the annoyance of her suitor,Jacquino. The prison governor Pizarro learns of animpending inspection and decides to kill Florestan.
Rocco refuses to carry out the murder but agrees to digthe grave. Leonore learns of the plot, and as theprisoners emerge into the sunlight, searches in vain forher husband. In the second act Leonore and Roccodescend to the dungeon where Florestan lies in chains.
Pizarro tries to kill Florestan, but is prevented at pistolpointby Leonore, who reveals her true identity. Withthe arrival of the inspecting minister, Don Fernando,Pizarro is arrested and the prisoners are freed. Leonorereleases Florestan's shackles herself.
EMI's 1953 studio recording of Fidelio, producedby Walter Legge, was made immediately after a seriesof performances given by largely the same forces at theTheater an der Wien in Vienna, where the very firstperformance of Fidelio had taken place in 1805. Thefirst night of the 1953 production was recorded and thisrecording has been published, thus allowing acomparison to be made of Furtwangler's performancesof the same work in close proximity, and in the theatreand the recording studio. Wilhelm Furtwangler wasthe pre-eminent German conductor of the twentiethcentury. He was born into a cultured middle-classGerman family and was educated privately. He wasfascinated by Beethoven and is reputed to havememorised most of his works by the time he was twelveyears old. He made his conducting debut in Munich in1906, and after working as a coach at the Zurich andMunich opera houses, went on to serve hisapprenticeship as a conductor with the opera companiesof Strasbourg, L?â??beck and Mannheim. He made hisdebut in Vienna in 1919. The following year he wasappointed conductor of the concerts of the Frankfurt andBerlin State Opera Orchestras, and in 1922, after thedeath of Arthur Nikisch, he became chief conductor ofboth the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig GewandhausOrchestras. He succeeded Weingartner as the conductorof the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1928, the yearin which he relinquished his Leipzig post. Henceforthmost of his activities were centered upon the twoprincipal orchestras of Berlin and Vienna. He remainedin Germany throughout the Third Reich, and in early1945 escaped to Switzerland when it became clear thathis life was in danger. He was forbidden by the alliesfrom conducting until the end of 1946, when he wascleared of all allegations of collaboration with the Nazigovernment. From 1947 onwards, until his death at theend of 1954, Furtwangler was active in all the majorEuropean musical centres, in addition to recording forEMI.
The cast for Furtwangler's Vienna performancesand recording of Fidelio represented the cream ofEuropean opera singers of the period. The title r?â??le ofFidelio or Leonore was taken by Martha Modl (1912-2001). She made her debut as Hansel at Remscheid in1942, and between 1945 and 1949 sang mezzo-sopranor?â??les as a member of the D?â??sseldorf opera company.
She joined the Hamburg State Opera in 1949 and beganthe change to dramatic soprano. She appeared withgreat success as Kundry and Isolde as well asBr?â??nnhilde at the post-war Bayreuth Festivals, andappeared there regularly until 1967. She sang the r?â??le ofLeonore at the re-opening of the Vienna State Opera in1955. During the latter part of her career she appearedin several significant new operas by German andAustrian composers, and she remained a commandingpresence on the operatic stage into her eighties.
The r?â??le of Florestan was taken by WolfgangWindgassen (1914-1974). After studying with hisfather, he made his debut in 1941 at Pforzheim asAlvaro in La forza del destino. Between 1945 and 1972he was a loyal member of the Stuttgart Opera, whilealso pursuing a free-lance career as the outstandingheldentenor of his generation. Like Modl heparticipated in the first post-war Bayreuth Festival of1951, singing Parsifal, and appeared annually atBayreuth until 1970. The last two years of his life werespent as the director of the Stuttgart Opera.
Supporting these two pre-eminent singers were thetwo outstanding bass-baritones, Alfred Poell and OttoEdelmann, as the forces of good and evil, DonFernando and Don Pizarro, the distinguished bassGottlob Frick as the hapless jailer Rocco, and, as theyoung lovers Marzelline and Jaquino, Sena Jurinacand Rudolf Schock, both on the threshold of majorinternational careers.David Patmore