The four versions of the overture are sufficiently different to suggest that Beethoven’s doubts were not so much with musical quality as with function. His original intention was clearly to provide a programmatic prelude that would foreshadow the ensuing drama and its music in the manner of the overtures of contemporary French opera. That to the 1805 version (known as Leonore No 2) is grand and dramatic but architecturally loose, and for the 1806 revision Beethoven produced Leonore No 3 which, while retaining much of the material of the original, was more concise and formally directed. Both the subsequent Leonore No 1 and Fidelio overtures, however, are shorter and in lighter, more independent vein, and while we may therefore assume that Beethoven found Nos 2 and 3 overbearing in their operatic settings, it is precisely the balance these closely related works strike between forceful dramatic suggestion and structural clarity that has made them the more popular of the Leonore/Fidelio overtures in the concert hall. As such, they are effectively the ancestors of the nineteenth century tone poem.
The opera is based on a true incident which occurred during the French Revolution: Florestan, a political prisoner, is aided in his escape by his wife Leonore, who has courageously taken a job as a prison guard while disguised as a man named Fidelio. Leonore No 2 suggests these events with powerful simplicity. A slow, harmonically groping introduction shows us the dungeon, with Florestan’s presence indicated by a reference on clarinets, horns and bassoons to his despairing aria from the beginning of Act 2. When the fast section arrives, it is with a leaping, heroic tune for Leonore which then leads to a warmly romantic transformation of Florestan’s aria. Later Beethoven imports a dramatic stroke directly from the opera: two off-stage trumpet calls signalling the pair’s imminent rescue, before the overture ends in a mood of emphatic joy.
from notes by Lindsay Kemp © 2005