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Hans PFITZNER (1869-1949)
Palestrina - A musical legend - (excerpts from Act One and Act Three)
Libretto by the composer after historical sources
Sung in German
Palestrina - Fritz Wunderlich (tenor)
Ighino - Sena Jurinac (soprano)
Silla - Christa Ludwig (contralto)
Borromeo - Otto Wiener (baritone)
First Angel - Mimi Coertse (soprano)
Second Angel - Lucia Popp (soprano)
Third Angel - Gundula Janowitz (soprano)
Voice of Lucretia - Hilde Rössel-Majdan (contralto)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Robert Heger (conductor)
Recorded live by Austrian Radio (ORF) on 16 December 1964
RCA RED SEAL 74321 79598 2 [79.35]

 


Another in the series of releases from the rich archive of performances taken from the past fifty years at the Vienna State Opera. This disc features the great but tragically short-lived tenor Fritz Wunderlich singing excerpts from Hans Pfitzner’s glorious opera Palestrina, on all but three minutes of the CD but regrettably not the whole opera. The impressive line-up of the other members of the cast includes a fabulous angelic trio of young house sopranos, Coertse, Popp, and Janowitz singing the Kyrie eleison - did Vienna never have a golden age? - as well as Wiener, Jurinac and Ludwig. As news spread during 1964 that Wunderlich was scheduled by the State Opera to sing the title role in Palestrina, so did incredulity. This had been the domain of Julius Patzak, before him Erich Schmedes, how would Wunderlich cope with the top C, let alone the brooding, restless nature of the hero himself? Barely five years since his debut in Freiburg as Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and only two since he had sung for the first time in Vienna, Wunderlich’s voice was considered too light and lyrical for such a densely scored post-Wagnerian drama, but as events turned out it proved to be the highlight of his pitifully short seven-year career. He sailed to the top C with head voice, his relative youth belied the success of his probing search for the character of Palestrina. His portrayal shows vividly the various uncertainties of mind and conscience he underwent while resisting the external pressures from clerics, but eventually he saved the art of his liturgical music for the Catholic Church. Wunderlich was about the same age as Palestrina in the opera and, judging by the intensity and the involvement of his singing on this record, he appeared to identify very closely with the character. It must have made a deep impression upon the hushed audience in this live recording, and remains a wonderfully clear rebuke to those who rejected the possibility that he would develop into a Wagnerian singer (the Steersman in Der fliegende Holländer was one of his roles, so too was David in Die Meistersinger). Apart from Tamino, Wunderlich was also a fine singing actor in the morally upright roles of Don Ottavio and Lensky, in both instances invariably endangered, but in reality never overshadowed, by the baritones singing the title roles of both operas in which these two characters appear. Although he continued to sing the sort of roles in which he had been supreme, ending with Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in April 1966, a few months before he was killed in a fall down stone stairs, this production put him on the road leading to Florestan and Walther von Stolzing. That he would eventually sing Parsifal is surely one of the great might-have-beens in twentieth century opera.

Despite the amazing cast of singers assembled for this production, of which these excerpts are a treasured legacy, it is the unforgettable voice and impeccable diction of Fritz Wunderlich which will sear itself upon your memory. There’s simply nothing more to say.

Christopher Fifield


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