Composer: Beethoven
Compositions: Leonore, 1805
Performers: Marlis Petersen s, Maximilian Schmitt t, Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs
Catalogue Number: Harmonia Mundi HMM90241415 (2CD)

It was 1804 when Joseph Sonnleithner’s translation of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s Léonore ou L’Amour Conjugal fell into Beethoven’s hands; here at last was a story that satisfied his lofty ideals of enlightened humanism and egalitarian justice.

Despite loving his unruly child of the theatre to the end of his days – he called it “his crown of martyrdom” – the infamous 1805 premiere was a disaster. The intended audience along with the best musicians had fled Vienna as Napoleon invaded the city. A poor performance and an audience of French soldiers cast a pall.

Well-meaning friends persuaded Beethoven to drastically cut the work down from three to two acts for 1806, losing some lovely music but most critically damaging the dramatic cohesion. His later 1814 final revision transmogrified the work into the great heroic paean for freedom we know as Fidelio but those dramaturgical inconsistencies remain.

In the excellent notes for this recording René Jacobs makes a persuasive case for the first version (1805) as the finest as you might expect of a HIP revisionist, but he delivers a performance that may well convince the doubters. Blomstedt’s 1976 recording was superb but its traditional post-Wagnerian approach had its longueurs. Jacobs’ fleet tempi sometimes veer dangerously close to the hectic but keep the domestic episodes on the move while invigorating the big moments with edge-of-the-seat tension (although I sometimes wished he’d relax a little for such sublime numbers as the Quartet and Prisoner’s Chorus).

His superb cast delivers the dialogue with such gusto and vivid realism I never felt tempted to press ‘next’! Robin Johannsen is an ideal Marzelline, with a lovely silver lustre to the voice and a pert flirt but thankfully devoid of soubrette clichés, matched with the fine Jaquino of Johannes Chum. Dimitry Ivashchenko is a superb Rocco, warm, humane and realistic in scale – rather than a stray Gurnemanz – a decent fellow caught up in some nasty business. As Pizarro, Johannes Weisser does a fine job with an ungrateful role.

Maximilian Schmitt is a noble lyric Florestan. As for the Leonore of Marlis Petersen, she is an artist of the highest order, with flawless precision and agility, beauty and focus, and fearless commitment. Her big dramatic scena (which in 1814 becomes Abscheulicher!) with a shorter recitative but further 55 bars of coloratura is a tour de force. Her rounded portrayal and Jacobs’ dramatic revelations lift this above Gardiner’s excellent 1997 recording as my new favourite. Though my post-Wagnerian alter-ego still loves Klemperer’s and Bernstein’s Fidelio, it is mighty fine Beethoven in either guise.