CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Beethoven and Weismann

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases featuring works of Beethoven and Julius Weismann.

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio (aka Leonore), in the first version of 1805, omitting the dialogue and substituting a narration written by Walter Jens and recited by actor Martin Schwab (Rocco). Camilla Nylund, soprano (Leonore); Peter Rose, bass (Rocco); Kurt Streit, tenor (Florestan); Brigitte Geller, soprano (Marzelline); Gerd Grochowski, bass (Don Pizarro); Dietmar Kerschbaum, tenor (Jaquino); Thomas Ebenstein, tenor (First Prisoner); Dietmar Kerschbaum, bass-baritone (Second Prisoner) and Ralf Lukas, bass (Don Fernando). Arnold Schoenberg Choir and ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna conducted by Bertrand de Billy (recorded in performance at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, in August 2005). OEHMS Classics 919 (two CDs).

Beethoven composed the first version of his only opera, now known as Fidelio, rather rapidly mainly during the summer months of 1804 with a view toward staging it the following year. There were several factors which caused the opera to be withdrawn after only a few performances: inadequate rehearsal, personnel shortages and, what is more, it was during the French occupation of Austria—some Viennese citizens had evacuated and the national currency was worthless. Beethoven spurned the importunings of the new management of the Theater an der Wien to make further concessions to what was considered the popular taste, and that was that.

Beethoven's Fidelio 1805A scissors-and-paste job on the opera followed. Beethoven and his homme de confiance Stephan von Breuning cut several numbers which seemed to impede the dramatic action, and shortened the piece from three acts to two. A projected revival in Prague in 1807 did not materialize, and the opera was shelved. The composer came back to it in 1814, after having given it three overtures (the Leonore Overture No. 2, the overture to the original version, is really more of a symphonic poem than a curtain-raiser; Leonore No. 3 is a rewrite of No. 2 and is sometimes played between the two scenes of the second act of the revised version; Leonore No. 1, not published during Beethoven’s lifetime, was written for the Prague revival that didn’t happen). He subjected the score to a thorough overhaul, this time working in collaboration with a more sympathetic librettist —Friedrich Treitschke — and everything was completely rethought; some of the music was scrapped, and new scenes were composed afresh. Abscheulicher!, for instance, was one of the new items. Only the quartet in the first act (Mir ist so wunderbar) survived without modification or alteration. The 1814 Fidelio benefits from the composer’s experience of writing (particularly) the fifth and sixth symphonies in the intervening years. It is that version which entered the repertory.

Beethoven had originally titled the opera Leonore—inviting confusion with Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora of 1804 (in Italian) and a one-act comic version by the French singer Pierre Gaveaux, produced about 1798. All were based on a drama by Frenchman Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, whose story drew inspiration from the plight of a woman whose husband had been unjustly imprisoned during the Reign of Terror in France during the 1790s, when the Revolution went sour. This was actually a woman whom Bouilly personally aided. To avoid difficulties with French censors, Bouilly transposed the characters and the situation to Renaissance-era Spain.

Fidelio is one of few exceptions to the rule that, in opera, everything is sung. There is spoken dialogue in between vocal numbers, and quite a lot of it; the revised version has perhaps more dialogue than necessary, and most recordings of that version and staged performances of it judiciously prune it. Modern performances seem to be afraid of the dialogue, or letting the characters speak—as well as sing—for themselves. The current version (of the original 1805 version) dispenses with it altogether and in its place puts a narrative by the jailer Rocco, in this case an actor and not the bass singer who portrays the same character. This is reminiscent of a more effective (staged) performance of the 1814 version, given by the Chicago Symphony during Daniel Barenboim’s tenure as Music Director, in which the narrator was Leonore—in that case, soprano Waltraud Meier—who stepped away from the German-singing stage and declaimed her narration in English, a remarkable theatrical tour de force. A recorded performance of the 1805 version by John Eliot Gardiner (on Deutsche Grammophon-Archiv) replaced original librettist Josef Sonnleithner’s dialogue with poems of the same era. Thus the only recording of the 1805 Leonore (as Beethoven originally called the opera) which faithfully follows the 1967 Willy Hess edition and includes the minimally-cut dialogue is one from the 1970s conducted by Herbert Blomstedt (with Edda Moser as Leonore and the Staatskapelle Dresden), released in England on EMI and in more recent years on compact discs bearing the Berlin Classics label.

The 1805 version begins with Leonore No. 2, a symphonic poem on a large scale, followed immediately by the sight of a lone young woman struggling across the stage, carrying an oversized basket of laundry. Before launching into her opening aria, the young woman (Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter) goes into a rather extensive (spoken) monologue about her ideal marriage to the new young man to whom she’s taken a fancy—and, after reaching such a state of nuptial bliss, she’ll still be there doing laundry for the prisoners. This opening is a graphic illustration of what has been called the opera’s unevenness—which may, in the eye of the beholder, be part of its attraction. Another attraction is a trio for Rocco, Marzelline and Leonore (disguised as the teenage boy “Fidelio”) early in the original first act, Ein Mann ist bald genommen, a fine example of “light” Beethoven, with arresting direct modulations into remote keys in the manner of the Andante in F for piano — which the composer penned at about the same time. It, like the original second act duet (Um froh in Ehestand zu leben (for Marzelline and Leonore, with violin and ‘cello obbligati), was a casualty of the 1806 housecleaning.

The present recording—of a live performance at the Theater an der Wien, scene of the 1805 fiasco—does away with Marzelline and her laundry basket. Instead, Rocco — an actor who doesn’t slightly resemble the bass who sings him — reminisces in a hollow monotone. The speaking actor represents Rocco as an old man, recounting the story decades after the fact. For reasons unknown, the text of his German narration is not given as part of the printed libretto: only cues are supplied. The musical performance, superintended by French conductor Bertrand de Billy who leads the ORF (Austrian Radio) Symphony Orchestra in the pit, seems to fall short of being impassioned. It is clean, reasonably musical and accurate, but it fails to appeal to the emotions. It seems almost too “polite”. The orchestral execution is impeccable, but the performance seems to go very little beyond that. At times, the singing almost touches Olympian heights. Soprano Brigitte Geller (Marzelline) has a soaring quality almost reminiscent of Schwarzkopf. Conductor Billy does an exquisite job of balancing the orchestra in the first act quartet.

There are problems of orchestral and choral balance in the prisoners’ chorus in the second act, and the brass seem too prominent right before the entry of the second prisoner (baritone solo). These transient irregularities may be part of the hazards of live recording. Bass Gerd Grochowski effectively brings out the psychotic nature of Don Pizarro, the prison superintendent. He is not afraid to go off the page and bellow or shout instead of merely sing when the pathological rage of Pizarro boils over. Camilla Nylund, the Leonore of this production, provides a sympathetic portrayal of the woman who risked everything to get her husband out of a nearly fatal solitary confinement and to stand in the way of his execution. Even so, the damage done to the dramatic continuity by doing away with the dialogue, and the Melodram in the third and final act, is incalculable. (Bertrand de Billy claims that he has used a reconstruction of the original version of Florestan’s aria which opens the third act, and the Melodram in its original form makes a reference to a supposedly revised version which appeared in the main body of the Hess score.) The narration sounds as if it were recorded in a studio quite apart from the theater; the writer of the German narration, Walter Jens, is much too free in re-inventing the character of Rocco. It begs the question: why narration instead of leaving the dialogue left by Beethoven and Sonnleithner? Do singers prefer not to speak? Is it too taxing?

In some recordings, operas or singspielen which have spoken lines in between musical numbers employ actors whose vocal timbres approximate that of the characters also represented by respective singers. In the case of international casts, it is understandable that a singer who does not yet have speaking and writing facility in a language in which he or she can sing convincingly might want (in a recording) to defer to a native-speaker actor for the spoken lines. This was the case in Sir Thomas Beecham’s celebrated recording of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, and I daresay that was the case in numerous other recordings. On the other hand, the integration of a speaking stage voice with a singing one can pose a difficult but sublimely rewarding artistic challenge: bass Alexander Kipnis often spoke of the way Arturo Toscanini taught singers to “modulate” from a spoken line into an aria in the 1937 Salzburg Festival production of another Mozart singspiel, The Magic Flute.

Another point cited in the notes accompanying this recording was the inclusion of the March, WoO 2, instead of the one in B-flat given in the Hess edition (substantially the same as the one in the 1814 version. It opens Act II of the original version and is in the middle of Act I in the 1814 revision). Some musicologists believe there is evidence that WoO 2 was used in the première in 1805; and that the March in B-flat was written sometime after 1806. Hess does not give WoO 2 in the second volume of his edition of Leonore, which includes sketch material and alternate versions of various numbers.

The 1970s Blomstedt/Dresden version went straight to the heart of Beethoven and made a convincing case for the earlier version. This newly released recording, I am afraid, lacks the indefinable ingredients of vitality and passion so essential to the opera. There is emotion and good acting in this recording, but I hear more politesse than passion here.

For information about this new recording of the 1805 Fidelio, go to


JULIUS WEISMANN: String Quartet in a minor, op. 133 (1940; première, 1942). String Quartet in G, op. 148 (1943-45; première, on a radio broadcast, in 1948). Both in orchestral versions by Georg Mais. Georg Mais conducting the Southwest German Chamber Orchestra of Pforzheim. CPO 777596-2.

Julius Weismann, by all accounts a great natural musician, was born in Freiburg on the day after Christmas 1879, the son of zoologist and geneticist August Weismann and his wife Mary (who died young). As a child, Weismann taught himself to play the piano by improvising — before he learned to read music; as a mature musician, Weismann was able to compose away from an instrument — and, more remarkably, without a preconceived plan. It was improvisation on paper in the best sense. He has nearly 200 opus numbers to his credit, and composed in all media: symphonies, concertos, songs, piano music and twelve string quartets. The two recorded here come from toward the end of Weismann’s life (he died on 22 December 1950, less than a week before his seventy-first birthday).

Weismann is one of those forgotten twentieth-century Romantics who are now beginning to come into their own. They were spurned during their active lives, perhaps because they went their own way and did not follow academic and ostensibly fashionable currents like atonality and serialism. Weismann is not unadventurous: the a-minor Quartet is quite freely chromatic and shows some influence of “impressionistic” musical styles, although this composer is clearly an individualist and cannot be conveniently pigeonholed. In the G-major Quartet, the style is more lyrical but no less busily contrapuntal, and Weismann can sound just as Austrian as Schubert—although he was German and not Austrian. There is a faint echo, here and there, of the introspective style of the Beethoven op. 131 Quartet, but that is offered by way of comparison and reference. It is a searchingly adventurous, though not a sensationalistic, work—but highly original in every respect. Julius Weismann is clearly his own man in these pieces.

Conductor Georg Mais, who has been active mainly in Germany (with occasional forays into the United States, Lithuania, Byelorussia, Asia and Latin America) since his Berlin Philharmonic début in 1989, has performed an inestimable service in unearthing these two quartets. In working with the Pforzheim orchestra, he has found an unusually compatible ally in unfolding the pleasant mysticism of these quartets. Like Bernstein in his performances of the Beethoven opp. 131 and 135, Mais has not rescored anything but added discreet bass doublings here and there. The orchestra, since its founding sixty years ago by Friedrich Tilegant (a protégé of Paul Hindemith), has proved its mettle from the beginning in a wide range of repertory – but it has shown itself particularly effective in modern music, and in the music of neglected composers from various periods. It ably projects the aggressively contrapuntal though unaffectedly lyrical style which defines Weismann as a composer, and gives a fullness of sound without any heaviness of effect. Every strand of sound that matters is clearly heard. This recording is a major achievement.

For information on acquiring this CD of music by Julius Weismann, see