The 25 Essential Beethoven Recordings: A 1962 Fidelio

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

“Majestic,” “metaphysical” and “transcendent” are some of the words critics usually reach for when describing the 1962 account of Beethoven’s Fidelio with Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. Indeed, this recording is all of those things. The performance captures the theatrical pacing and profound humanity of the opera, and makes you forget the work’s dramatic shortcomings.

Canadian tenor Jon Vickers brings a passionate voice to Florestan, a Spanish nobleman wrongfully imprisoned for his liberal sympathies by an autocratic governor. The eminent mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig is Florestan’s wife, Leonore, who, disguised as a young man named “Fidelio,” gets a job in the prison where her husband is held in order to rescue him. As the villainous Pizarro, Walter Berry offers real singing rather than the familiar cliched ranting; and Gottlob Frick gives a crafty portrayal of the witless Rocco.

Fifty years after its recording, Klemperer’s recording wears its age gracefully, even if the tempos are a bit slow by today's standards. That said, if you’re looking for a competitive modern version, try a recent take with the tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan, the soprano Nina Stemme as Leonore and Claudio Abbado conducting.

What do you think of our choice? What’s your favorite Fidelio? Leave a comment below.

Beethoven: Fidelio
Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Ingeborg Hallstein (soprano), Jon Vickers (tenor), Gerhard Unger (tenor), Walter Berry (baritone), Gottlob Frick (bass), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, cond Otto Klemperer
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Comments [11]

Brian Seed from Waukegan, Illinois, USA

I attended and photographed the rehearsals for the Klemperer recording of Fidelio as a professional photographer on assignment from EMI. It was either my nervous temperament, my instructions from management, or the fearsome nature of Klemperer, that prevented me from getting more than a handful of photos, but there is one great one of him instructing the entire cast of singers. What a joy to be able to be present during the creation of a masterly performance of Fidelio and to be paid for the privilege.

Jan. 17 2015 06:09 PM
Geoffrey Riggs from New York City

While there have been a few strong recordings of Fidelio since this '62 set with Klemperer/Ludwig/Vickers, there is an exceptional electricity to the Ludwig/Vickers partnership in the dungeon scene that has never been matched elsewhere in my experience. Because I view that scene as the heart of the opera anyway, the extent to which the Leonore and the Florestan can generate tension together is central for me in forming an opinion on any Fidelio. Perhaps, some day I will find a partnership equal to these two. But so far, I haven't.

In addition, sheer depth of casting points to this set as something truly special. I cannot recall another Fidelio set that is a true "seven-star-night". All seven singers here, right down to the Don Fernando of Franz Crass, were genuine stars in their day and sang leading roles (it's a shame that the Marzelline, Hallstein, did not get the same exposure here that she got in Europe, but she was a beloved star over there of many an important revival during her considerable peak). It's great that important bass-baritones are finally being given the part of Fernando these days also, from time to time. But I honestly cannot think of even one other Fidelio set that has seven stars in the seven roles, each of whom have headlined important opera revivals throughout their respective careers. So it's the sheer depth of casting here that arguably does make this set unique.


Geoffrey Riggs

Jan. 11 2014 08:33 PM
Neil Schnall

I'm sure Fidelio will turn up again at The Met at some point. I hope, however, it will not be in the current production, a Bush-era artifact featuring gratuitous but indistinct updating. Most egregious is the staging of the final scene depicting Pizarro being lynched. I'm certain this was not the kind of justice Beethoven had in mind. He might, in fact, have been as offended by that as by Napoleon declaring himself emperor. At worst, Pizarro should have been sentenced to imprisonment in a dungeon without benefit of trial or tribunal. You know.... someplace like Gitmo. How's that for 21st century revisionism? Aren't we an enlightened society!

Nov. 12 2012 01:11 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner 0usic Drama institute, Boonton, N

Beethoven's universal scope in symphonies, concertos, sonatas and chamber music generally and song literature is so pervasive and his world consciousness and basic humanity construct an icon unparalled to and past his own era. At Juilliard, I studied his oeuvre and , in those days, all singers learned the concert rep of Beethoven , Schubert , Schumann, Wolf and Grieg, whether they would be opera singers or concert singers. So much of our treasured masterpiece, vocal and instrumental, are unknown quantities to most Americans. THANK YOU WQXR FOR CELEBRATING BEETHOVEN !!! Beethoven's symphonies are the ABCs of most essential single composers' oeuvre of the symphonic literature. Who ever having heard the Waldstein well performed can ever forget its beauty and nuanced scope of emotions. Wagner and his contemporaries and their successors all recognized the epic achievement of Beethoven. I am a romantischer Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute at 418A Main Street, Boonton, NJ .I have sung four solo concerts in four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I sang the Gott ! welch dunkel hier ! aria of Fidelio. it can be heard from the live performance on my three websites. It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines.

Nov. 12 2012 08:23 AM
Kevin from Orange County, NY

This is a wonderful recording. It is too bad that this is the only way I can hear this opera since Peter Gelb has not seen fit to bring this back to the Met. It is almost 10 years since Kariya Mattila and Ben Heppner sang it in NYC.

Nov. 09 2012 06:45 PM
steve lerit from morristown, NJ

It is shortsighted to think that only contemporary recordings should be played. Note that many of today's artists cite singers of previous generations as their inspiration. Once the ear adjusts to the sonic shortcomings of older recordings (and it will adjust), there is much to be gleaned from these performances that is in very short supply today. Much of the famous singers of the past were idiomatic and unique and tended to put a personal stamp on a role that generally is hard to find today. Inhabitation of a role was sometimes earned at the expense of absolute fidelity to a composer's intentions, often for the better. Prime examples include Melchior, Chaliapin, Corelli, Callas, etc.

Nov. 09 2012 08:39 AM
John T from New York City

I read the discussion of recent as opposed to "classic" recordings with great interest. Klemperer's recording has long been considered one of the great interpretations of Fidelio. I happen to own his live recording with Vickers and Jurinac (a great artist) as Leonore and it is equally interesting. My favorite recording however is the Bohm recording with Gwyneth Jones and James King because the first performance I attended of Fidelio was at the Met with these great artists. I have never heard the prisoners' chorus as effective as it was in that performance.

Nov. 07 2012 09:55 PM
Neil Schnall

If anything, WQXR usually does tend to favor more recent recordings in its quotidian fare. WQXR deserves credit this time for recognizing the pre-eminence of this unique, unmatchable recorded performance.

Furthermore, it should be regarded as a privilege that the field of classical music offers the opportunity to savor recorded documentation of our historical heritage (one too often squandered). I may be cynical, but I'm certain that if a recording could have existed of Beethoven himself conducting Fidelio (or playing, say, one of his piano sonatas), someone would carp "why do we have to hear crackly old sound when they could play a record by someone more contemporary?". How amazing was it, earlier this year, when David Dubal offered us actual sound recordings of Debussy performing his own piano works! But if they're available, why must we await special programming to get to hear them? What a world!

Nov. 07 2012 01:22 PM
Andrew from Lower Merion, PA

I stand corrected--the lead singers are all living (the conductor isn't), but when is the last time anyone heard any of them on stage? Been a while. And yes, it is a great recording, acknowledged, but I'd like to see accolades for active performers.

Nov. 07 2012 11:32 AM
sethdavis from Rye, NY

First of all, Jon Vickers is NOT dead. ;-)

Secondly, this recording is transcendent.

That said, the Abbado recording is indeed marvelous.

Nov. 07 2012 10:10 AM
Andrew from Lower Merion, PA

More dead performers.

Granted this one is a classic, yes (like the Serkin and Beaux Arts recordings), but how about Sir Colin Davis's all-star cast (Deborah Voigt, Ben Heppner and Andreas Schulz), or the Fidelios conducted by Lorin Maazel and Claudio Abbado (the latter of which was put out within the past year). Or the Bernard Haitink rendition with Jessye Norman, Andreas Schmidt and Kurt Moll. With so many excellent more contemporary performances, with living conductors and singers, why do we have to go so far back to get a recommendation?

WQXR is burying classical music with the stars of the past. Anyone else agree?

Nov. 07 2012 09:58 AM

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About Beethoven Awareness Month

No composer impacted the course of Western music like Ludwig van Beethoven. The events of his life are the stuff of Romantic legend, his works permeate concert halls and he remains a cultural icon outside of classical music, turning up in movies, TV soundtracks, commercials and pop songs. Throughout November, WQXR celebrates Beethoven's work through concert broadcasts, multimedia projects, marathons and other features.