Beethoven: Leonore

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Archiv
WORKS: Leonore
PERFORMER: Hillevi Martinpelto, Kim Begley, Alastair Miles, Matthew Best; Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 453 461-2 (also available boxed with BernsteinÕs Fidelio recording as part of DGÕs new Complete Beethoven Edition: DG 453 719-2)
Which Fidelio, asks John Eliot Gardiner in his booklet note – the ‘spontaneous and immediate’ three-act 1804/5 version, or the ‘retrospective and considered’ two-act 1814 revision? On deliberation, the issues are not that clear-cut – both are flawed but fascinating masterworks; but in practice, at least in this vivid recording, Beethoven’s first thoughts, despite some regrettable absences (the inspired 1814 version of Florestan’s monologue, for instance), are triumphantly vindicated.

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Not that this set is without its rough edges. Although the voices are appropriately smaller-scale than usual, they rarely probe beyond the surface of their respective characters; and some of the singing is frankly blustery and unfocused. Still, little matters perhaps: this is Gardiner’s triumph – he drives the music with a truly revolutionary fervour, pointing up Beethoven’s extraordinary handling of the orchestra (listen to the proto-Wagnerian Act III prelude), and powerfully vindicating Beethoven the dramatist.

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Given the conservatism of most opera houses, I can’t see Leonore being their preferred choice, and it would be good to see if a period-instrument 1814 Fidelio had quite the same blazing urgency. But despite my reservations about the singing (hence only four stars for performance, I’m afraid), this is an important, truly revelatory release. Antony Bye