Hans PFITZNER (1869-1949)
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. posth (1888) [23:16]
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 52 (1943) [17:59]
Cello Concerto in G major, Op. 42 (1935) [14:22]
Duo, for cello, violin and small orchestra, Op. 43 (1937) [11:51]
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Gergana Gergova (violin)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Sebastian Weigle
rec. Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, 18-21 June 2012
Reviewed as lossless download (FLAC) [DJB] and CD [RB]
HYPERION CDA67906 [67:28]
I was going to write that the music of Hans Pfitzner is late-romantic - very late - and it is. However that does not mean that it sprawls. In fact, these three concertos, expressed in ‘old-fashioned’, 19th century language span as long as 23 minutes and as short as 14 minutes. It is quite the opposite of what I would have expected of a composer of Pfitzner’s stamp. After all, his concertos for piano and for violin run, respectively, 38 mins and 33 mins. Even those are shorter than the much earlier Reger counterparts.
Pfitzner was a product of a musical family and of the Hoch Konservatorium in Frankfurt - familiar to British music enthusiasts as the ‘home’ of the ‘Frankfurt Gang’ including Cyril Scott and Percy Grainger. There his teachers included James Kwast and Iwan Knorr. His musical output was extensive including operas amongst which Palestrina stands tall. There are also orchestral pieces, chamber music and lieder. His sympathies were Nazi although Hitler did not reciprocate and appears to have blocked his music at key points. He was jealous of Richard Strauss’s success and even now he still stands in the shadow of “Richard II” who also died in 1949. Nigel Simeone in his useful and interesting liner-note tells us that Pfitzner was shattered by the war. His home in Munich had been destroyed and he spent some time in the later 1940s in a sanatorium in Garmisch.
The music is old-fashioned and stands somewhere in the vicinity of Elgar, Dvořák, Brahms and Schumann. The very early A minor Op. Posth., in two movements, starts as stormy tormented stuff rooted in Schumann and takes in some sweetly downbeat Brahmsian melancholia along the way. There is some very effective and completely engaging violin writing in the second and final movement. The work was despised by Bruch and not premiered until 1977.
The mature A minor work has its Dvořákian moments and in its second movement suddenly reminded me of the playful orchestral music of Siegfried Wagner. Then we come to the glorious G major concerto. This is a gift for cellists and audiences. Here Pfitzner and Gerhardt spin a long line of melody and catch a super-romantic mood. The melody that lies at the heart of this gem of a work is cut from cloth of the most dazzling quality. Yes, it does shade into sentimentality but it’s a brief swerve. The concerto ends in a confident downbeat rather than a grandiloquent flourish. Along the way there is at least one moment of Straussian whooping from the horns and in the second movement Elgarian playfulness takes a role. Geringas on the CPO disc of the cello concertos is very good but the recording is not as luxurious as that achieved by Hyperion. If you catch the bug with this concerto then do not miss the version by Rohan de Saram. His radio broadcast from the 1970s on First Hand Records is glorious. It’s the version through which I discovered and imprinted on this rapturous work. The G major is the finest of the three concertos.
The Duo is in three little movements and is even shorter than the shortest of the cello concertos. There’s a touch of harmonic complexity in the first movement and even of some neo-baroquerie but overall this fits the singing and undulating profile of the concertos.
This is volume 4 in Hyperion’s Romantic Cello Concerto line over which, for the most part, Alban Gerhardt presides. The others are: Vol. 1 Dohnányi, Enescu, Albert (CDA67544); Vol. 2 Volkmann, Dietrich, Gernsheim, Schumann (CDA67583); Vol. 3 Stanford (CDA67859) in which Gemma Rosefield is the soloist rather than Gerhardt. Outside that series Gerhardt and Hyperion have collaborated in a Prokofiev concerto disc as well as one of Strauss’s Don Quixote. There are many others from him including concerto discs from Naxos (Jacobi) and Chandos (Bridge).
It’s impossible to imagine a line of recordings that is themed as the obverse of Decca’s glorious Entartete Musik series. If there were such a thing then Pfitzner would belong in it. As it is, his music, is refreshingly clear of his politics and on this evidence stands on its own musical merits. This generously timed disc of open-heartedly romantic music has great merits. As for the G major concerto it’s one of those rewarding works you need to know.
And a further review ...
These four works by the Moscow-born German romantic, Hans Pfitzner comprise the fourth issue in the Romantic Cello Concerto series.
I had not knowingly heard any of his music until last week when a recording of his piano concerto appeared as The Classical Shop’s hourly discount. Impressed by the previews, I found Rob Barnett’s review from the early days of this site of a five CD set of his orchestral works, including these concertos. It was then a very pleasing coincidence that I saw this on Hyperion’s March release list.
The early concerto, not published until after Pfitzner’s death, was apparently scorned by his teachers and not performed in public until 1977. I fail to see to see why: certainly, it’s no Dvorak B minor, but neither is the largely ignored “first” Dvorak concerto. There are quite a few lumpy changes in mood and key, but this is the work of a nineteen-year old. Moreover, the slow movement is quite beautiful. Note this - it will be a recurring theme.
The mature concertos, placed in reverse order on the disc, follow and the change in mood and in quality of workmanship is evident from the start. Contradicting the perception of overblown late-Romanticism that I had of Pfitzner, they are both very compact in scale and scoring. Neither is intended as a showcase of the soloist’s virtuosity. They are very much a conversation between cello and orchestra. The mid-war A minor concerto alternates movements of great beauty with a spiky scherzo and a jaunty allegretto to finish.
It is the G major concerto that is the star of the show. Written in five connected movements for the great Spanish cellist, Gaspar Cassadó, it is gloriously lyrical throughout. It opens with the soloist quietly stating the theme, discreetly accompanied by timpani only. Magical moments abound in its less than fifteen minutes. Pfitzner certainly knew how to write a beautiful melody, and to not overscore it. The final moments of the work where the cello murmurs rapturously with harp and flute are quite wonderful.
The duo with violin and small orchestra which completes the disc, and gives it an acceptable running time, is again small-scale, beautifully crafted and with a ravishing slow movement.
The mature concertos have been recorded a number of times, but obviously I had not heard them before listening to this, and in wanting to get the review published as quickly as possible, I haven’t attempted to find them. I can’t imagine that they would be played any better than here.
The sound and the notes are of Hyperion’s usual, high standards.
In summary, this isn’t at all what I expected from Pfitzner, and it certainly encourages me to investigate further. If you prefer your music to have sharp edges and push the boundaries, this isn’t for you. If however, like me, you appreciate beautifully crafted melodies in small and elegant parcels, you will adore this.
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