Hans PFITZNER (1869-1949)
Palestrina (1917 – no Opus number): Three Preludes [22.21]
Das Herz, Op.39 (1931): Love theme [7.12]
Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, Op.17: Overture (1905) [16.30]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Guntram, Op.25: Prelude to Act One (1894) [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

Although he wrote many other works Pfitzner’s reputation rests firmly on his fourth opera, Palestrina, written 1912-1916 and first performed in 1917. Its subject is the composer Palestrina’s struggle to write a mass, the Missa Papae Marcelli, which is supposed to have saved polyphonic music for the church. It is written in a rich post-Wagnerian idiom and is one of a series of German operas about artists and their relation to the society of the time which began with Wagner’s Meistersinger and after Pfitzner continued with Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Henze’s Elegy for young lovers. There are no doubt others.

In Germany Palestrina is considered a classic and it is reasonably often performed and recorded. I first got to know it through the splendid recording by Rafael Kubelik, who rather specialized in these works – he also recorded Meistersinger and Mathis der Maler. In Britain it had one semi-professional production in 1981 and a full-scale production at Covent Garden in 1997 and 2001, at which the conductor was Thielemann, as on this disc. I saw both of these and am convinced it is a masterpiece. It is, however, an intensely serious work – I have heard it described as ‘like Parsifal but without the jokes’ – so those wondering whether to take the plunge may be interested in this disc, which introduces the work through the preludes to the three acts.

The first begins with a gentle theme on several flutes – incidentally, unusually for a German composer Pfitzner includes an alto flute in the score – then expands into a most beautiful, gentle and sad piece portraying Palestrina’s sadness following the death of his wife. The second introduces us to the Council of Trent and the squabbling churchmen. This is savage, with much splendidly vigorous writing for the brass. The final prelude returns us to a mood closer to the first. The three together make up a satisfying suite which provides a fair summary of the work in orchestral terms.

Das Herz was Pfitzner’s last opera, given the honour of two simultaneous premieres in 1931, under Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch. However, a poor libretto soon led to its departure from the repertory. The Love theme is in fact the prelude to the second act and is a work with some similarity to the prelude to the first act of Palestrina, but even more delicate and gentle. It is a lovely piece.

Das Käthchen von Heilbronn was a play by Kleist for which Pfitzner wrote an Overture and incidental music. The play is about witchcraft and the Overture summarises its action in an episodic way which approaches the style of Strauss’s tone poems. I have to say that I find it too episodic and much too long.

During their lifetimes Pfitzner and Strauss were seen as rivals, though Strauss’ international success soon came to overshadow Pfitzner. At this distance in time their idioms don’t seem that different, though Pfitzner seems to have been the more conscientious craftsman and Strauss the more virtuosic and also the more casual. Here we are given two rarities. Guntram was Strauss’s first opera, on a Wagnerian kind of subject, and it was a failure. The overture, which is reminiscent of that to Lohengrin, was fairly frequently performed by its composer and it maintains a toe-hold on the repertory. His second opera, Feuersnot, features a magician in love with Diemut who finally yields to him: this is represented orchestrally in the Love Scene excerpted here. This is a typically opulent Straussian display. Not being a perfect Straussian I don’t know that I shall ever get round to listening to these two operas complete, so I am glad to have what are probably their two best passages excerpted here.

Between these two we have the prelude to Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio. This is scored for string sextet and is so played here. It is a ravishing piece, much the best known of these three Strauss works and a wonderful addition to the not very large repertory of works for string sextet.

This was Thielemann’s first recording. He had already conducted Palestrina in the opera house and also a good deal of Strauss. This repertory was his choice: far from dutifully working his way through rarities in order to make a mark, he champions them all with love and understanding.

There is no exact competition for this disc. Sawallisch recorded an all-Pfitzner disc in 1988 and this is still in the catalogue. This was worthwhile but Thielemann is far more imaginative and he also gets the exactly right sound from his Berlin forces, whether it is the delicacy of the flutes, the snarl of the brass or the long lyrical line of the string passages. There are several other recordings of the Strauss works, though not in this combination.

I have to say that the recording, made in the Jesus-Christus Kirche, a familiar recording venue for DG engineers at that period, is not quite transparent, and tends to be congested in climaxes but this is a small matter. There is a useful English sleeve-note by the Pfitzner expert John Williamson (see also Owen Toller's Pfitzner/Palestrina book). Notes in three other languages are by three other writers. Thielemann contributes a short interview about his admiration for Pfitzner. The Palestrina preludes here are really superb.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Paul Godfrey

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