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Hans PFITZNER (1869-1949)
Das Christ-Elflein
(The Christmas Elf)
A Fairy Tale Opera in Two Acts
Das Elflein…………………Helen Donath
Das Christkindchen………. Janet Perry
Der Tannengreis………… Alexander Malta
Knecht Ruprecht………… Nikolaus Hillebrand
Chor des Bayerishen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunkorchester
conducted by Kurt Eichhorn.
Broadcast by Bayerischen Rundfunks 30th November 1979
ORFEO C 437 992 I 2 CDs [100:59]
AmazonUK    AmazonUS  

Hans Pfitzner, as Lionel Salter says in his excellent album notes, "quite deliberately pursued a stony path avoiding everything that seemed frivolous and he paid for this rejection with a loss of popularity". He was tagged as aloof and inaccessible and he seemed to live always in the shadow of Richard Strauss. Pfitzner had a troubled and grief-stricken life - all his three children died and the theme of suffering and illness permeates his whole operatic output -- save this charming and predominantly sunny work. It was admired by Otto Klemperer who particularly liked its lovely overture although Bruno Walter was more derisory -- at least about the original 1906 version.

Briefly the story of this typically German fable is: "The sound of Christmas bells and carols awakens in an elf the wish to draw close to humans. Although the old fir-tree warns the elf of the heartlessness of the human race, he has his way and leaves the forest home. He in fact experiences many disappointments, and becomes acquainted with grief and illness. When the Christ-child appears on Christmas Eve, the elf at once wants to follow him to heaven. But the Christ-child has the task of bringing to heaven the soul of a sick child, Trautchen. The elf offers himself to be taken to heaven instead of Trautchen. The Christ-child agrees to the exchange, Trautchen is cured and from now on the elf will come to earth from heaven each year at Christmas as a Christmas elf. The piece ends with a happy Christmas party by Trautchen's family."

The work is presented on this 2 CD set as a series of musical numbers interposed with brief narratives, spoken in German. Unfortunately a libretto is not included but a detailed track-by-track synopsis allows one to follow the detail of the plot so the exclusion is not too serious. There are a number of orchestral episodes. The eleven-minute Overture that Klemperer admired so much is pure delight. It is lyrical and beautifully melodic, setting the scene extremely well. It is warm and compassionate, pastoral appropriate to its Alpine setting, cheery and mischievous yet briefly tinged with sadness for the fate of Trautchen.

Another major orchestral interlude ends Act I, another eleven-minute round dance that accompanies the scene where the Ancient Fir enchants the forest to prevent Franz and Jochen felling a tree. This is high-spirited alpine folk music, playful, lilting; then exciting, then radiant as the chorus of fir-trees and angels work their magic spell. The orchestral movements on Act II, Introduction and Pantomime are tinged with sadness for Trautchen, however the mournfulness in the Pantomime is transformed through exquisite modulations to a radiant hymn sung by the choir in anticipation of the miracle.

Helen Donath (so memorable as Eva in the celebrated 1971 recording of Wagner's Die Meistersinger) brings an innocent purity to the role of the elf. She is mischievously merry in her early exchanges with the Ancient Fir and outstanding in her taxing and affecting coloratura aria in the Act II miracle scene. Alexander Malta is a gravely serious Ancient Fir gruff and jealous in condemning mankind in his Act I duet with the elf and just as taciturn as he weaves his spell over the forest to protect his beloved firs, with Pfitzner's delightful contrasting light-hearted, parodying orchestral accompaniment that makes reference to the German tune 'Das Tannenbaum'. Nikolaus Hillebrand too is impressive as Knecht Ruprecht (Father Chrismas) first gently admonishing the astonished Franz and Jochen for making him drop his sack of toys and causing him to mend them by magic, then later explaining to an angry Ancient Fir the importance of felled firs at Christmas time. These two Ruprecht arias are, particularly the latter, very reminiscent of those given to Hans Sachs, noble, comforting, and conveying a sense of oaken reliability. In the smaller role of the Christ-child, Janet Perry is radiantly consolatory. And Eichhorn weaves sheer magic

This is an enchanting, magical work that shows Pfitzner in a different, happier light. A rewarding listening experience at any time of the year - at Christmas time it will be spellbinding. Heartily recommended.

Ian Lace

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