Hans PFITZNER (1869-1949)
Palestrina (1919): Preludes [22.21]
Das Herz, Op.39: Love theme [7.12]
Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, Op.17: Overture [16.30]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Guntram, Op.25: Prelude to Act One [11.33]
Capriccio, Op.85: Prelude (string sextet) [11.03]
Feuersnot, Op.50: Love scene [6.37]
Orchestra of Deutschen Oper Berlin/Christian Thielemann
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, October 1995
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON PRESTO 449571-2 [75.24]
When a conductor signs an exclusive contract with a major record label nowadays - not as common an occurrence as it used to be - the newcomer’s vanity is often gratified by their being given an opportunity to make a recording of one of the major masterworks of the repertory, regardless of whether they have anything new to say about the score. The bean-counters also welcome this, as they consider that with a major advertising campaign they can guarantee a level of sales which may serve to cover their investment. All the more credit, therefore, to Christian Thielemann who in 1996 requested that his first recording for DG should consist of works by Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss, none of them works which had been recorded many times in the past and most of which were unfamiliar to a supposedly unadventurous record-buying public. Even more credit to the producers at DG who did not seek to divert him into more lucrative pastures. Of the three Strauss operatic excerpts on this disc, one had never been recorded other than as part of a complete recording of the work in question. The preludes from Palestrina and the overture Das Käthchen von Heilbronn had featured together on an Orfeo CD from Wolfgang Sawallisch which I am not sure was ever widely commercially released outside Germany (although it remains listed on Archiv). The ‘Love theme’ from Das Herz had, like Strauss’s Guntram overture, never ever been the subject of a modern recording except in the context of the complete opera. Not that any of these pieces deserved such neglect; they had just never been taken up by a major conductor and label with any degree of enthusiasm – which the music admirably warranted.
Last year, when reviewing Otmar Suitner’s complete recording of Pfitzner’s Palestrina, I commented that nobody had committed a better interpretation of the preludes to disc than Thielemann. I am delighted that thanks to Presto the original CD has now seen the light of day again. Listening once again to Thielemann’s recordings serves to confirm the infinite superiority of his performances. The Prelude to Act One is taken at a properly stately pace which serves to highlight the beautiful counterpoint of Pfitzner’s imitations of Renaissance style, and at the same time to highlight the modern touches which lend the music its distinctive feel. The Prelude to Act Two has exactly the sense of the stabbing trumpets and string bustle during the opening which were so patently missing in Suitner’s set. Even the Prelude to Act Three, which can seem like a pale imitation of that to Act One when dispatched with too little concern for the emotional undertow of the music, comes to real life in Thielemann’s hands. It makes the listener thirst for a complete recording of the opera from this conductor, if a suitable cast could be assembled; some of Thielemann’s later opera recordings have laboured under woeful inadequacies in this respect.
After this superlative opening, the other two pieces by Pfitzner on this disc suffer to an extent by comparison. Nevertheless the performance of the extract from Das Herz is given a performance of unmeasured superiority over that in the long-deleted complete Marco Polo recording of the opera. The overture to Das Kätchen von Heilbronn has a sense of sparkling life which overwhelms comparisons with the recording on Orfeo by Sawallisch; his perfectly adequate performances of the Palestrina Preludes nonetheless seem pale by comparison with Thielemann. I have not heard alternative vintage recordings by Klaus Tennstedt and Carl Schuricht, nor the twenty-year old version by Otmar Suitner although that does have the advantage of including other excerpts from the incidental music, not available elsewhere. The extract from Das Herz was included in a disc of orchestral music conducted by the composer, but the 1932 sound cannot begin to do justice to the music despite its documentary status. Although the music is overshadowed by the sheer genius of Palestrina, it is still marvellous to hear in its own right.
Of the Strauss excerpts which fill up this disc — Sawallisch gave short measure by comparison — the Guntram overture has all the richness and warmth which we associate with the composer at this stage in his career; his cycle of symphonic poems was in full swing. The orchestra and conductor respond well to the teeming detail in the score. The Love Scene from Feuersnot had been recorded by Norman Del Mar as part of a disc of Strauss rarities — at one time available on Classics for Pleasure but seemingly deleted — but Thielemann, if not surpassing the English conductor here, is fully his equal. I discount in this context vintage recordings by Sir Thomas Beecham – who conducted the English première of the opera – and André Cluytens. The String Sextet which opens Capriccio is a surprising item – it is really chamber music rather than orchestral – but serves to illustrate Strauss’s later style. Am I alone in finding the sudden transition about half way through this piece from pastiche eighteenth century to fully blown Straussian passion rather an uncomfortable leap? Some of the music here really sounds as though it needs a larger body of strings; it works well in the context of the opera, but when heard on its own the solo violin cascades of notes sound rather thin. I have heard this sextet performed by a full string orchestra — Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony recorded it in this guise, and there may be other versions — and regret that this option was not adopted for this disc.
This is a very minor cause for concern. What really makes this disc an absolute necessity is the recordings of the Palestrina preludes, never equalled or surpassed in any other performance. As interpretations they are simply streets ahead of all other competition. The recordings, rich, warm and resonant, are absolutely ideal, and the playing of the orchestra never puts a foot wrong. Many thanks are due to Presto Classical for making them available again. Anyone who loves the music of Pfitzner’s opera as much as I do - I launched a defence of the work against its critics in my review of the Suitner set last year - will really need to hear this disc. Time and again it opens the listener’s ears to passages that other recordings simply gloss over. Dare we ask the conductor to return once again to the music of Pfitzner, which he clearly understands and appreciates so well?
Paul Corfield Godfrey