CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Beethoven and Bartok

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 new recordings featuring the works of Beethoven and Bartok.

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio, op. 72. 2010 Lucerne Festival recording with Nina Stemme, mezzo-soprano (Leonore); Jonas Kauffmann, tenor (Florestan); Christof Fischesser, bass (Rocco); Falk Struckmann, bass-baritone (Don Pizarro); Rachel Harnisch, soprano (Marzelline); Christoph Strehl, tenor (Jaquino) and Peter Mattei, bass (Don Fernando).  Arnold Schoenberg Choir (prepared by Erwin Ortner) and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Decca 4782551 (2 CDs, with libretto and notes enclosed).

There seems to be, nowadays more so than ever before, a tendency in musical performance to keep everything as understated as possible.  Whether this is a fear of emotion, of sensuality or of thinking on a grand scale is uncertain, but it is something that is “in the air” and in some cases profoundly disturbing.  This writer once heard a musicologist proclaim, in the comparatively complacent period of the 1980s, that Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio “no longer has any relevance” because of its subject matter and occasional fusion of Olympian ideals and melodrama.  No great work, however flawed, ever loses relevance; some may not feel a connection with it, and that is the inevitable fate of anyone’s intellectual property: not everybody is going to take to it.  As Friedrich Schiller once put it, “To please many is bad.”

Fidelio is a flawed masterpiece, one that in the beginning saw a quick gestation but which was produced under the most inauspicious circumstances anyone could imagine.  After some scissors-and-paste fix-up jobs in which some numbers were cut and the three acts became two, Beethoven laid aside his score and did not have any thoughts about it, supposedly, until 1814—when he subjected the entire score to a thorough overhaul.  That version is the one which has entered the repertory, though over the past slightly more than thirty years there have been a few recordings and productions of the three-act version of nine years before (not published in full score until 1967).  What remains in the revision is a seeming unevenness of style in the first act: the first half of it seems more like a singspiel than an opera, and indeed the published score contains more spoken dialogue than is generally used in most performances. The present recording dispenses with the spoken dialogue left by Beethoven and his second literary collaborator, Friedrich Treitschke.  A certain Tatjana Gürbaca has written some new lines in place of them.  The second-act Melodram, where speech is given orchestral accompaniment, is thankfully left alone.

In the middle of this singspiel within the opera is the quartet, Mir ist so wunderbar, in which Leonore (disguised as a young man in an attempt to rescue her long-imprisoned husband); Rocco the jailer, his daughter Marzelline and his assistant Jaquino express their varied feelings in a short but highly effective piece which is like a sophisticated “catch”.  This is the only number that passed from the first to the second version unaltered and unmodified.  It begins with a tender, almost lush string sonority (obtained by dividing the violas).  In the present recording of this quartet, Abbado seems to take a cut-the-vibrato approach supposedly much in vogue today: consequently, not all the sound is there.  One may be grateful that this tendency toward understatement doesn’t carry through the whole performance (this recording is of a live, staged performance), and the singers are all first-rate.  Bass-baritone Falk Struckmann is a marvelously effective Pizarro, and there isn’t a thing understated about the opera after his initial appearance (the point in the first act in which singspiel is thrown out the window and grand opera takes over).  There are inevitable problems of balance in a live recording, as singer-actors move away from the microphones and the orchestra seems to overpower them (as in, particularly, the duet between Rocco and Pizzaro, Jetzt, Alter and in Leonore’s big recitative and aria—Abscheulicher!—which follows on its heels).  Mezzo Nina Stemme is as good a Leonore as anyone could wish for. 

The stark f-minor orchestral opening of the second act — written differently than anything in the score — is carried off simply by letting Beethoven be Beethoven.  Abbado is laudably conscientious about bringing out every nuance.  Tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s almost instrumental-sounding crescendo on the word “Gott!” is at first unsettling, but it’s highly effective.  Kaufmann admirably succeeds in bringing out both the pathetic and the heroic characteristics of the political prisoner Florestan.  The off-microphone sound in In des Lebens Frühlingstagen is slightly disturbing—no fault of Mr. Abbado or Mr. Kaufmann, but of microphone placement.  One wonders if it sounded that way in the theater.  The oboe obbligato in this aria is very well-played indeed.

All concerned capture the dark atmosphere of the grave-digging duet between Rocco and Leonore (Nur hurtig fort) quite admirably.  One cannot help but think of Arturo Toscanini, presiding over a Salzburg dress rehearsal of this sequence more than 70 years ago, whispering in rapture “What music!” when it was over.  The cathartic second-act quartet Er sterbe! has everything in it that should be there, but is slightly marred by the microphone placement problems mentioned earlier. 

There is no Leonore No. 3 overture during the change of scene in the second act.  Indeed, throughout the entire opera, there seems to be no audience noise!  Everything is brisk but not brusque as the opera moves to its triumphant conclusion.  The chorus is tremendous, musical and with impeccable diction and marvelous coloring.  Kudos to Erwin Ortner, who prepared the group. 

On the whole, this is a very good Fidelio, despite this reviewer’s strong reservations about tampering with the dialogue—which is an altogether different thing than judiciously pruning it.  One would be hard-pressed to name any recorded performance of this opera which preserves intact every single line of speech in the Peters edition.

For information on this recording, go to


BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 1, BB 48a (1907-08).  Violin Concerto No. 2, BB 117 (1938).  James Ehnes, violin; with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Viola Concerto, Sz. 120 (BB 128) (1945; completed by Tibor Serly). Ehnes, viola; with Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic.  Chandos 10690.

Bartok Violin Concertos Nos 1 and 2, James Ehnes SoloistCanadian violinist James Ehnes is a passionate and persuasive advocate of this music, particularly the neglected early violin concerto now designated as “No. 1” which takes its lead from the complex melodic structures of Hungarian folk music.  Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic — certainly on the strength of its large and growing catalogue of noteworthy recordings, one of the world’s great orchestras — respond in kind.   Ehnes has a big tone and a feeling for the long melodic line.  He is equally effective in all kinds of nuances and shadings, and his opening of the Allegro giocoso that opens the multisectional second movement is positively frightening.  It seems to be the lyrical side of Bartók, though, that motivates Ehnes. 

The first concerto, as it is now known, was written for Steffi Geyer, a pupil of Jenö Hubay and an early romantic interest of Bartók’s, who seems to have sat on the score until she died in the mid-1950s.  Bartók re-used the first movement of this early concerto as one of his Two Portraits; other than that, he seems to have forgotten about the work.  The second violin concerto, from thirty years later, more expansive in terms of its shape and duration but lacking none of the rhapsodic nature and melodic inventiveness of the first, was written for Zoltán Székely, a frequent sonata partner of the pianist Bartók, at the same time he was working with the better-known Joseph Szigeti.  Ehnes holds back nothing in this performance, and the orchestra — no less, and in some ways, even more important as a participant than in the earlier work — is glorious.  The recording is a complement, as will as a compliment, to the very superior musicianship at work here.

The Viola Concerto, written in the last months of Bartók’s life when he was living in the United States, was in response to a commission from the British-born violist William Primrose, who was rapidly making a name for himself.  Bartók, terminally ill with leukemia, was working on a piano concerto for his wife (which was completed) and this concerto (which was not) simultaneously: he drafted the piece during the summer of 1945, and died on September 2.  The viola concerto was a skeletal work, with incomplete orchestration and even some uncertainty as to whether there were three or four movements.  Tibor Serly, a Hungarian violist and composer who was also living in the United States, produced a playable version, which was presented by Primrose with Antal Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) in late 1949. 

Ehnes is just as natural a viola player as he is a violinist.  The viola concerto has a different musical language than the violin works, more austere and percussive, and growing out of extended solo passagework (especially true of the first movement, the longest of the three).  Even here, the lyrical side seems to carry the day. Ehnes presents a vivid portrait of Béla Bartók as a modern romanticist who never lacked for something to say.  Highly recommended.

More information about this superb recording may be found at