Pfitzner’s ‘musical legend’ Palestrina
divided critical opinion from the very first, following on its premičre in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Some commentators, Thomas Mann and Bruno Walter among the most prominent, hailed it as an overwhelming masterpiece. Others focused on the supposedly undramatic nature of the composer’s own libretto, with its peculiarly unbalanced proportions in which each Act is shorter than its predecessor. The mostly contemplative outer Acts frame a tumultuous Second Act in which only one character from the other sections appears at all. The protagonist is hardly mentioned — and then only in passing — when nobody seems able even to remember his name. Yet this Second Act is a vital part of the scheme as a whole, demonstrating the role of a political society which impinges on the internal world of the artist in all its often brutal reality. As such the opera has sometimes been compared to Hindemith’s somewhat later Mathis der Maler
, which certainly shares some of its preoccupations. It too climaxes in a visionary ‘dream’ sequence wherein the concerns of the artist are specifically addressed and resolved. Moreover the supposed dramatic discontinuity is obviated by the fact that the musical themes from the other Acts continue to make their presence felt in the central one. Those who complain of the dichotomy seem to have confused the technique of opera with that of the stage play. As will be gathered I am very willing to spring to the defence of Palestrina,
both its text and its music, which I hardly see could have been written in any other way. It explores aspects of the creative life which are ideally suited to the operatic medium no matter how much they may defy conventional expectations
(see also review of a book by Owen Toller about Pfitzner and the opera Palestrina
Like many other non-German listeners, I suspect that I first encountered the opera by reputation rather than actual experience; I remember attending the first British performance, a semi-professional staging, as late as the 1980s. I had heard of, but never encountered, a pirated live set of LPs featuring Fritz Wunderlich in the title role (review
) which bizarrely included an inserted chunk of Schoenberg’s Gürrelieder
which cropped up on the same source tape. I had looked at length at the full score marvelling at Pfitzner’s subtle evocation of the world of the Renaissance. The appearance of a commercial recording under Rafael Kubelík helped to clarify my admiration for the score. DG spared no expense in assembling a magnificent cast who by and large made out the best case for the music. One might nowadays cavil that Nicolai Gedda as Palestrina did not measure up to Fritz Wunderlich in honeyed beauty of tone, or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Hans Hotter in sheer nobility. Those earlier artists were only to be heard in off-stage relays with the inevitable problems of poor recording, and supporting casts that hardly began to compare with that supplied to Kubelík.
Some forty years later, the Kubelík set, handsomely remastered from five LPs onto three mid-price CDs, remains the sole thoroughly rehearsed studio recording of the work. The CD reissue – at least in the version I own – comes complete with text and translation (both essential in a score of this nature). It also takes the trouble to re-attach correctly a held note in Act Two which was formerly split across two LP sides. One might expect this to have been done as a matter of course, but I have learned over the years that transfer engineers can be extraordinarily cavalier and insensitive in this regard. I am horrified that in this Brilliant Classics reissue exactly the same fault is inexcusably made, with a three-second pause introduced for good measure. Apart from a number of ‘off-stage’ recordings, the Berlin release under consideration here is the only studio-condition rival to DG, taken as it is from a number of concert performances with no evidence of audience presence, even at the end of Acts. The sessions were spread over a period of some eighteen months. Although the cast in Berlin is nothing like as star-studded as that in Bavaria for Kubelík, it does supply some not inconsiderable names in the supporting roles – some of which are far from negligible in importance.
Let us begin, however, with the conducting. Palestrina
is most definitely not a score that plays itself. It requires very careful shepherding, not allowing the music to stagnate, but at the same time never forcing the pace in an attempt to supply a false sense of tension to the music of the outer Acts. At the same time the contrasting Second Act, showing the temporal bustle of the Council of Trent, should convey power and majesty without ever degenerating into surface glitter or rowdiness. Otmar Suitner here falls short of Kubelík on both counts. Passages like the sunrise over Rome in Act One (CD2, track 2) are pushed forward with undesirable speed — and a lack of weight in the strings, where the Berlin forces are far less solid than those in Bavaria — to an extent that the overwhelming power of the music is vitiated. In the prelude to the Second Act, on the other hand, Suitner fails to inject the necessary impact into the stabbing trumpet chords (CD2, track 4). Towards the end of the same prelude, the surging string arpeggios which make so much impact chez
Kubelík sound merely decorative in Suitner’s hands. Best of all here is Christian Thielemann on his famous recording of the Palestrina
Preludes. He also makes more of the archaic stillness of the Act One prelude than either Kubelík or Suitner, creating a real other-worldly atmosphere.
One point at which Suitner does score over Kubelík, however, comes in the matter of recorded balance. It is a great pity that DG, doubtless wishing to capitalise on their stellar and presumably expensive cast, placed their microphones quite so close to the singers in places. As Cardinal Borromeo storms out during Act One, observing to Palestrina that Hell is reaching out its arms to claim him, Pfitzner underpins his otherwise unaccompanied high cadence with a quiet flurried woodwind skirl. This is clearly intended to convey a suspicion of brimstone. On the LPs this was effectively completely masked by the close observation of Fischer-Dieskau’s voice; on the CD transfer it is audible, if only just. Here the balance between Siegfried Lorenz and the orchestra enables Pfitzner’s subtle effect to come through loud and clear. Similarly in the following visionary scenes with the old masters and the angelic chorus, not to mention the ghost of his dead wife, the voice of Palestrina in the foreground is ideally contrasted with the more distanced perspective given to his dreams. In the DG balance for Kubelík the singers are all too obviously lined up in a row across the front of the stage. This does a great deal to dissipate the atmosphere which we so clearly want here. So it is not quite a simple matter of swings and roundabouts.
There is however also a certain element of swings and roundabouts in the casting. The singer who takes the part of Palestrina’s dead wife in the Kubelík set during the vision sequence is, quite apart from sounding almost on top of the microphone, a real casting disaster. She sounds more masculine in tone than the other female artists – the excellent Helen Donath and Brigitte Fassbaender – who have earlier assumed the pubescent roles of Palestrina’s son and pupil respectively. Her expressionless and uninflected singing is a real liability in this crucial scene. Uta Priew is far more effective for Suitner. Similarly in Act Two, the perky and characterful Heribert Steinbach for Kubelík less effectively conveys the sense of a world-weary and indolently cruel cardinal than Peter-Jürgen Schmidt does here. There too Hermann Prey sounds far too genial in the role of the malevolent and malicious Spanish count when set by the side of the less luxuriously voiced Gunther Leib. Fritz Hübner, too, displays more sense of the callous raw power of violence here than did Karl Ridderbusch for Kubelík, although Ridderbusch sounds more kindly as the Pope in the final Act than Hermann Christrian Polster does here. Ekkehard Wlaschiha as the master of ceremonies is more forthright than Kubelík’s Gerd Nienstedt. Gunther Kuhrt is properly boorish as the mischief-making rural bishop fiddling his expenses. The strained-sounding Henno Garduhn is insufficiently other-worldly as the Assyrian Patriarch, with his command of the notes none too secure. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen is duly noble-sounding as Morone, but the young Bernd Weikl for Kubelík was something very special. Carola Nossek and Rosemarie Lang in the opening scene here (CD1, track 2) would be fine were they not up against the unmatchable competition of Donath and Fassbaender for Kubelík. The ranks of the choristers and masters here include singers of the stature of Andreas Schmidt and Olaf Bär, but their contributions are far from substantial.
The two principal roles of Palestrina and Borromeo are here in the more than capable hands of Peter Schreier and Siegfried Lorenz, and reactions to their performances must necessarily be more a matter of personal preference. Schreier is of course a master of the text, with every word coming over loud and clear; but he lacks the sheer honeyed tones of Gedda (let alone Wunderlich) and does not rise in the same way to the heroic declamation of his final scene (CD3, track 7) where he describes himself as “the last link” in God’s chain. Lorenz is a more straightforward cardinal than the subtly inflected Fischer-Dieskau, but at the same time he does not resort to the sheer bluster of the older singer; this is a portrait of an essentially good man trying to do his best, not a tortured intellectual.
In the end this is a very good and considered performance, and were it not for the mid-priced DG competition it would earn a hearty recommendation not least for its superior recording balances. The set does not include text or translation, although the nine-page booklet note by Manfred Haedler (in English only) is valuable especially for the insights it throws on Pfitzner’s decidedly one-way relationship with the Nazis. The back of the box informs that the libretto (although a translation is not mentioned) is available on the Brilliant website although I was unable to locate this at the time of writing. What was surprising though was to find a listing for a Brilliant Classics reissue of the Kubelík/DG recording, although this no longer features on Archiv where the mid-price DG CDs continue to be shown as available alongside various other off-stage transfers. So, incidentally, is the Berlin Classics set of this Suitner performance (review
). In the end, though, if like me you love Palestrina
and want a top-flight recording for your collection, the Kubelík set (even with its incidental faults) is still after forty years the one to go for.
Paul Corfield Godfrey