Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio — Vienna State Opera 1944 & 1953
1. Performance of 5-7 February 1944: Neralic, Schöffler, Ralf, Konetzi, Alsen, Seefried, Klein, Gallos, Schweiger.
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Karl Böhm.
2. Performance of 12 October 1953: Poell, Edelmann, Windgassen, Mödl, Frick, Jurinac, Schock, Hendrks, Bierbach.
Chor und orchester der Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler
Andante AN 3090 [4CDs]

I grew up during the Age of LP and compared with CD’s the size had its disadvantages but there were some distinct gains as well, especially in the field of artwork. Collectors may have the same set on CD but they will rarely separate from those glorious RCA-Soria recordings like Carmen (Price, Corelli) or Otello (Vickers, Gobbi) with their lavish booklets. Though there are no colour photographs in this set under review I nevertheless was reminded of those old glories. This 4Cd-set is so wonderfully packed and designed into what looks like a small hard cover book that just paging in it gives one already some joy. Of course, neither performance is a great discovery for the collector. The Böhm-set already appeared twice on LP and twice on CD. The Furtwängler only has one LP- and one CD-reissue, which is quite understandable as the conductor led exactly the same cast the same year for a commercial recording on HMV (3 LP’s) and with all spoken dialogues cut as if producer Legge didn’t trust the singers to speak their lines. At the time he was not alone in this false belief. The next commercial Fidelio (Fricsay) came out on DG with actors for the dialogues; an even more ridiculous solution as one could clearly hear the differences in timbre between actors and singers.
A surprise awaits the listener if he doesn’t directly plunge into playing. Though there is no essay on the differences in interpretation between Böhm and Furtwängler, someone clever at Andante has just put the timings of tracks next to each other and there goes one’s prejudices and expectations. Take “Gott, welch Dunkel hier”. One is tempted to think Böhm will be a little bit more incisive, a bit more lively maybe stressing Florestan’s defiance while one presumes Furtwängler to linger a little bit more on the prisoner’s sad fate. And then there are the sober figures stating that Furtwängler is indeed exactly …ten seconds slower than Böhm in a scene that takes 12 minutes. And in the aria itself the differences of tempi are almost imperceptible. The same happens in the long Leonore III overture that at the time was still played just before the final scene: twenty seconds Furtwängler comes behind Böhm in an almost 16 minutes track. And one really ponders on the real influence of those giant conductors and slowly but inexorably one has the feeling that as much as those conductors lead they are led too by the same orchestra with its own traditions and long proof tempi.
Therefore differences will mostly depend on sound and individual singers. As to sound the Böhm-version has the slighter margin. By that time in the war it was impossible to broadcast directly as the possibility of an air attack was very real and then the whole Reich would have heard a mad scrambling for safety: bad for morale. Therefore Böhm and his singers went into a radio studio and recorded the opera during two days (not that they were safe from air attack over there) and it shows in the clearer and warmer sound (though the modern engineers did a wonderful job too when I compare this performance with some other recordings made in those war studio’s where one immediately hears orchestral discrepancies while the impression here is one of the good mono-recordings of the early fifties). The Furtwängler was really recorded in the house (not the still to be re-built Opera itself but in the fine Theater an der Wien so famous for its many operetta premières). Though the singers sound as fine with Böhm as with Furtwängler the latter’s orchestra suffers slightly as it sounds somewhat harsher, more metallic. And of course there are a few scenic sounds: doors opening and closing, feet running away but nothing really disturbing and in return one gets applause at the appropriate places, a feature this reviewer maybe somewhat strangely misses on studio-recorded recordings.
Now why should one go for these recordings apart from the formidable atmosphere in the Furtwängler: well, mostly for the singers (There are or were five Böhms and four Furtwänglers available). The discovery of Böhms’ set is soprano Hilde Konetzy. There is little available of this stalwart of the Vienna Opera: some roles when she had become a seconda donna (Chénier with Corelli, Tebaldi) and in her best days an Otello (Böhm, Ralf) while the first and only complete live performance ever recorded with Tauber (Bartered Bride Covent Garden 1939) suffers from a mike that had difficulty getting her outbursts on acetate. On this performance she already had a career of 15 years of strenuous roles and some of the youth had gone out of the voice. But in its place came a more rounded and warmer tone and several extra decibels. The voice never sounds overtaxed and demonstrates a good legato that doesn’t show any German bark at all. The voice has Italianate colour in it. Only a small flatness at the top betrays her. Her competitor if one can Mödl call so as there is no question of ” best buy” is her usual fascinating self: fine recognizable timbre, clear enunciation and somewhat careful above the staff where she prefers mezza-voce because after a career of barely ten years she was already in slightly heavy vocal weather (The Met never heard her in her prime as she made her début three years later). But the usual intensity is there, the impressive amount of vocal colours which remind one of Callas (not the same voice, but the same total immersion). From time to time she goes flat as in the duet with Rocco but in “O Namenlose Freude’ she is simply marvellous, changing from one moment to another from a heavenly pianissimo to a jubilant forte and that’s where Konetzy, good on her own, is a little bland in comparison. That’s the place too where one hears Windgassen strain for volume and still being drowned under the weight of Mödl’s voice. The men in both sets are indeed definitely not of the same weight: Swedish Torsten Ralf is one of the best Florestans on record as he has it all: volume, beauty in the voice, a good top, excellent enunciation and stylish singing. Wolfgang Windgassen in the Furtwängler is not in the same league. He was and always remained a lyric tenor, struggling with a part too heavy, often aspirating and chopping up phrases. He tries to compensate with a lot of mezza-voce and a few well chosen pianissimi but has to shout in the cabaletta to “Gott ! Welch dunkel”. That is one of the reasons this reviewer likes live-sets so much. Engineers cannot tamper with the balance between voices and Mödl clearly sings Windgassen away. The rest of the cast is very fine in both sets. Paul Schöffler with Böhme has more volume while Edelmann in the other set is somewhat more refined but both men characterize well. Gottlob Frick has a slight edge on Herbert Alsen (Furtwängler) as the voice is simply more beautiful and far easily recognizable. I cannot chose between Irmgard Seefried (Böhm) or Sena Jurinac (Furtwängler): both so youthfully fresh and exuberant. Furtwängler of course enjoys the services of Rudolf Schock as Jacquino who has the better and more interesting voice than Peter Klein. Both Poell (Furtwängler) and Neralic (Böhm) are warmhearted. Now the nice thing of this set is that for once one has not to choose between two versions as one gets them both. Warmly recommended.
Jan Neckers