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Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio
Christa Ludwig (Leonore), Jon Vickers (Florestan), Walter Berry (Pizarro), Gundula Janowitz (Marzelline), Waldemar Kmentt (Jaquino), Walter Kreppel (Rocco), Eberhard Waechter (Don Fernando), Kostas Paskalis (First Prisoner), Ljubomir Pantscheff (Second Prisoner), Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna Staatsoper, Herbert von Karajan (conductor)
Recorded live in Vienna (May 25, 1962) – 125'53
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7364 – Booklet in German, English, and French

Has any musical creation ever so grasped the essential core of humanity than Beethoven’s Fidelio? Deutsche Grammophon’s initial release of Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 outing from the Vienna Staatsoper, one of a series to commemorate the conductor’s 100th birth anniversary, is a felicitous happenstance for a number of reasons. It is fascinating to hear Karajan’s earlier thoughts on the piece, his interpretation rendered in far less pristine circumstances than was to be the case in his studio recording essayed years later. The evening also fielded role debuts from four of its principal artists. But ultimately, this set will be prized for the marvelous opportunity it provides to glimpse at the standard seen on a “regular night” in what was a golden period in the history of that house - a time of luxury casting as has rarely been seen since.

Christa Ludwig has spoken of the challenges inherent in her assumption of the soprano Leonore, indeed some of her observations are quoted in Gottfried Kraus's informative booklet essay. Ludwig is who she is, so she certainly gets away with this assignment - actually she does a great deal more than that - and while in the higher passages of the writing some of her anxiety may be discernable in hindsight, it admittedly makes for an emotionally crackling frisson in Leonore's passionate determination.

Despite an announced indisposition in this performance, Vickers' Florestan remains the valuable commodity it always was. Walter Berry's first Pizarro is filled with snarling menace, and another effective role debut, that of Gundula Janowitz as Marzelline, presciently hints at her own graduation to the title role in years to come. Kmentt is a real piece of festival casting as an ardent Jaquino. Walter Kreppel and Eberhard Waechter round out the cast beautifully as Rocco and Don Fernando (also a debut assumption), respectively. Kostas Paskalis fields a vital First Prisoner.

As for the conductor, Karajan is Karajan - meaning he reigns supreme or is supremely frustrating, depending on one's point of view regarding this venerated and iconoclastic artist. For my money, Karajan renders the more extrovert elements of the piece with a verve and excitement second to none, while the more domestic interludes such as the Jaquino/Marzelline scenes arguably want a bit more intimacy; “Mir ist so wunderbar” might benefit from more tenderness as well. But this was 1962, and many of the idiosyncrasies some complain of were little in evidence at this time. This is by any standard a compelling performance, if a bit more rough-and-ready than one often associates with the Maestro.

There is a great deal of stage noise and the live, early 60’s sound is often boxy, but as this is such a valuable archival document, those niggling flaws should not disturb anyone who appreciates the gravity of the occasion. The well-crafted booklet contains helpful background material, a nicely considered synopsis and libretto, all in three languages.

Mark Thomas Ketterson




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