From the archives: Christopher Breunig – Davis’s new Fidelio, Haitink’s Beethoven completed – and more.

Davis’s new Fidelio

The New Year brings a sea-change to the London Symphony Orchestra as workaholic Valery Gergiev takes over from Sir Colin Davis as principal conductor, his senior colleague becoming its president. (The Philharmonia and London Philharmonic Orchestras have also announced new appointments: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Vladimir Jurowski.) Happily, Sir Colin is to make more records for the LSO Live label – it will be particularly interesting to hear the Enigma Variations, the first British piece he recorded with the LSO for Philips, back in 1965.

He’s brought nothing better to the label than his latest set, Beethoven’s Fidelio, taken from Barbican concert performances last May with a cast including Icelandic, Finnish, Polish, Canadian, American and English principals and with sharp-focused singing from the LSO Chorus [LSO0593, two hybrid SACDs]. Superior in every way to the last live version we had – Rattle on EMI – this ranks more with Klemperer’s gripping ROH mono broadcast from 1961, transferred by Testament. There’s dialogue but no Leonora 3.

Sir Colin says he’s conducted Fidelio more times than any other opera and his love for the score is evident in every section; moreover, it’s the beauty of the scoring that shines out in this well-balanced production. That is a compliment, too, to the LSO on inspired form – this is the real Beethoven. I have to single out its principal oboe, I assume Emanuel Abbuehl, singing out in the dungeon scene before Rocco and Leonore enter; and in the triumphal finale. If I have always admired the melodic aspects of Beethoven’s writing, his use of instrumentation has never registered more profoundly. (Incidentally, the march theme which introduces Don Pizarro has the same shape as the motif – dah-di- di-dah – that sums up the Pastoral Symphony’s finale. I wonder what significance this pattern had for Beethoven.)

The cast has a well matched hero and heroine in John MacMaster (not unlike Vickers, in vocal colour) and Christine Brewer, well contrasted with Sally Matthews’s Marzelline, who did strike me as slightly coy – although this makes dramatic sense. As so often in this opera, Rocco is an anchor (here Kristinn Sigmundsson); Juha Uusitalo has hauteur as Don Pizarro but does not hector, almost becoming a victim-figure. A first choice recorded Fidelio, then, with properly supporting notes and libretto.

Haitink’s Beethoven completed

When I once turned up twenty minutes late for an interview with Bernard Haitink he showed, not irritation, but concern that I would have to forfeit time with him. I remember most from our conversation his description of concerts in occupied Holland, when Gestapo agents were posted at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw doors and the music was given in an unlit, unheated hall. A phrase he used about recorded repertoire, that pieces ‘came my way’, I’ve seen too in other interviews. (He used it in connection with his EMI Vaughan Williams cycle; the last six Mozart symphonies – works one would have expected from him – he said ‘never came my way’. One wonders if Sibelius has ever figured in his concert programmes.)

In a chance symmetry, his third complete Beethoven symphony cycle on disc has ended with the Eighth: a work he first recorded in 1963. The coupling is the Fourth [LSO Live LSO0587]. As with Osmo Vänskä’s ongoing BIS series, the recordings are issued in hybrid SACD pressings but midpriced; alternatively, CDs are Ê√5.99.

These immaculately drilled performances will disappoint expectations if you think Beethoven’s Eighth is full of good humour and the Fourth the most serene of the nine. Haitink’s new-found briskness ill suits these works. With identical timing, the slow movement of No.4, as compared with his Concertgebouw recording, introduces unwelcome tensions; his Eighth has none of the twinkle in the eye of, say, Monteux’s with the VPO, nor the cantabile lines Karajan brought to the Philharmonia (EMI: remarkable early stereo). There are better things in Haitink’s LSO cycle: the Seventh, Sixth and Third Symphonies.

Kubelik and Karajan ‘live’

The German label Audite began as a transfer series from Bavarian Radio archives of live performances conducted by Rafael Kubelik (with the Munich orchestra from 1967–85). There are Mozart and Beethoven concertos with Clifford Curzon and a near-complete Mahler symphony cycle, to which the Eighth has been recently added, albeit in disappointing sound – it is a hybrid disc [92.551] which has on the SACD layer both the original tape as broadcast and the tidied edition. ‘Listen and compare’ is a unique Audite feature (see www.audite.de for full catalogue, including audiophile vinyl alas not distributed in the UK). As a conventional CD [95.531, midprice] we now have Beethoven’s Symphony 2, taped in Paris in 1971, with solid sound and plenty of stamping on the podium, and a lovely Pastoral from Munich, 1963, with a wider stereo spread but less bass.

The selling point of Kubelik’s DG cycle was that each symphony was with a different orchestra, the Sixth with the Orchestre de Paris rather disappointing. This one also starts unpromisingly slowly but Kubelik’s basic tempo is reached via rubato – indeed what makes both performances so engaging is the proportioning of tempi, although the very slow trio in 2(iii) might concern some listeners. This symphony is fiery, like the later RPO Beecham Second.

With five studio recordings, another Ninth from Karajan might seem superfluous. But in a somewhat overpriced edition issued by the Berlin Philharmonic, mostly recycling familar material, we can hear the ‘Choral’ given to mark the October 1963 opening of what came to be known as ‘Karajan’s Circus’, the tent-like Philharmonie [BPH 06 06]. As in the DG recording made exactly one year before in the Jesus-Christus Kirche, the soprano is Gundala Janowitz; Sieglinde Wagner and Luigi Alva are contralto and tenor, Otto Wiener the bass (in difficulty in his opening phrases); the St Hedwig’s Cathedral and RIAS Chamber Choirs replace the Vienna Singverein.

Karajan could be remarkably consistent over movement timings but this unedited reading is slightly shorter in the three orchestral movements. Given the ‘perfection’ of the studio versions, it’s good to hear intonational flaws and the players in places over-stretched. This is a valuable extension to the Karajan discography – although other reviewers reach different conclusions!

A Ninth for our times

Vänskä’s third Beethoven instalment [BIS-SACD 1616] has been acclaimed in BBC Music as ‘a Ninth for our times’ – remarkably, since the Minnesota Orchestra and Chorale are not in the US ‘top five’ and his soloists, Helena Juntunen, Katarina Karneus, Daniel Norman and Neal Davies are as yet comparatively unfamiliar.

Vänskä, like Haitink with the LSO, opts for a concise Adagio (13m 26s/14m 11s – as opposed to VPO/Bernstein at 17m 43s, or Furtwängler in 1942, 20m 05s); hypnotically lovely though the live Karajan slow movement may be, Vänskä goes deeper, relating the music to the transcendent writing in the late quartets.

More remarkable are the recitatives in (iv): dry as old bones. This truly takes us back into the 19th century (of course, given that ‘our times’ are those of inevitable chaos in Iraq, general tension and head-in-the-sand attitudes to global catastrophe, Misha Donat’s phrase is pretty meaningless). One could wish the Minnesota first violins had more body – the basses are seated at the back, with second violins divided antiphonally: Kubelik’s preferred seating – and for my taste the long Allegro energico choral section, before the soloists come in again, is too measured. (It is, however, marked ‘marcato’.)

The quartet blends well and the Welsh bass is beyond criticism in his opening pronouncement. Many score details are observed that are elsewhere glossed over – staccato dots over some of the choral writing, for instance. Vänskä really has looked hard at the implications of the Ninth.