One of the finest I have heard
A most joy-inducing
A winning partnership
A Lohengrin to
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Hans PFITZNER (1869-1949) Die Rose vom Liebesgarten
Siegnot - Erin Caves (tenor)
Waffenmeister and Nacht Wunderer - Kouta Rasanen (bass)
Sangesmeister - Andreas Kindschuh (baritone)
Minneleide - Astrid Weber (soprano)
Schwarzhilde - Jana Buchner (soprano)
Rotelse - Tiina Penttinen (mezzo-soprano)
Moorman - Andre Riemer (tenor)
Chor & Kinderchor der Oper Chemnitz & Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/Frank Beermann
rec. Opernhaus Chemnitz, 2009
With complete libretto and English translation CPO777 500-2 [3 CDs: 165:08]
Although there have been CD issues of a radio broadcast of a quite extensively cut 1953 Munich performance conducted by Robert Heger, this is the first studio recording of the second of Pfitzner’s five operas. I have long had an interest in Pfitzner, both as a composer and conductor, so was very pleased to see this recording issued and, after listening to it, only wondered why it had taken eight years to see the light of day when it is of such excellent quality.
The opera was written in 1901 to a libretto by Pfitzner’s friend James Grun, based on Der Wächter vom Liebesgarten, a painting by another friend, Hans Thoma, a section of which adorns the CD box. The story is a fairytale of the sort common in medieval revival 19th century German literature, occupying the same tradition as Wagner’s Lohengrin and Strauss’s first opera Guntram, though Pfitzner’s piece is of a more allegorical nature. The knight Siegnot (the influence of Wagner is clear even in the protagonist’s name) enters the service of the Child of the Sun, boy king of the Garden of Love, and his mother Mistress Love (both non-singing roles), receiving a rose as his insignia. Siegnot guards the gate of the Garden of Love and sees the elf Minneleide, Queen of the Woods, who tells him of their oppression by the Night Sorcerer. Siegnot falls in love with Minneleide but she is afraid of the bright light of the Garden and refuses to enter. The Night Sorcerer (Nacht Wunderer) enters and Siegnot fights with him but is defeated, and Minneleide is abducted. After awakening from his unconscious state after the fight, Siegnot searches for Minneleide in the underground realm of the Night Sorcerer, calling on Mistress Love to aid him. He uses his new strength, Samson-like, to pull down the pillars of the cavern and it collapses, killing all but Minneleide. She accompanies the body of Siegnot to the realm of Spring, but is herself killed by the Guard of Winter at the gates of the Garden of Love. However, Siegnot’s rose causes the gates of the Garden of Love to open, and the Child of the Sun resurrects Siegnot and Minneleide, welcoming them into the Garden of Love. As you can see, this plot line is somewhat difficult for a modern audience to take very seriously and would be a major hindrance to a modern revival, though the production at Chemnitz, from which this recording stems, certainly did not improve matters. This production concocts a completely new plot, which was displayed on boards at the side of the stage with ironic comments, making mock of the opera. According to Rein A. Zondergeld in his review in the March 2009 issue of Opera magazine, “this appalling mishmash of platitudes and embarrassing incompetence was the worst example of Regietheater I have witnessed in recent years.” I suppose we can only be thankful that this issue is on CD and not DVD. However, whatever we may feel today about the plot, it inspired Pfitzner to some glorious late-romantic music. Those who only know the solemn austerity of Palestrina will be surprised by the sensuousness and colour of much of the music.
The opera opens with a 50 minute Vorspiel, which really does not help the piece’s theatrical viability, as nothing happens. Siegnot has a short solo in which he pledges his allegiance to the Child and Mistress Love, but otherwise the entire act is taken up with ceremonial declarations and processions in celebration of the turning of winter into spring. This is really a musical pageant or secular cantata rather than a drama, and seems more suited to the concert hall than the stage. No dramatic momentum is generated, and after 50 minutes and an interval it is rather late to start any. The music, however, is compelling from the very first bars. A series of solemn brass fanfares are followed by a gorgeously harmonised melody on the strings which reminded me of Schönberg’s Gurrelieder. In the First Act the drama finally begins with a wonderfully atmospheric tone painting of a primeval forest, which again brings Gurrelieder strongly to mind. Siegnot is finally allowed a substantial scene, whose lyrical declamation is typical of his part throughout the opera; unlike his almost exact contemporary Strauss, Pfitzner seems to have loved the tenor voice. Pfitzner rarely lapses into the sort of all-purpose declamation which can bedevil German operas of this period (even Strauss is not blameless) and there is almost always a melodic impetus to the music. Minneleide has much less to do than Siegnot and her music is less effective, though what is, in effect, their love duet contains parts of real beauty. Again, however, the dramaturgy is not convincing and Minneleide’s refusal to enter the Garden of Love, because she is afraid of the bright light, seems completely inadequate as a wellspring for all that follows. The Second Act begins with one of the most musically remarkable parts of the opera. The prelude, set in the underground cave of the Night Sorcerer, contains a section where an almost atonal unaccompanied solo flute line is interrupted by cavernous interjections by low brass; this was incredibly advanced for 1901. We tend to think of Pfitzner as an arch musical conservative, but this section shows (rather like Strauss with Elektra) that he might have taken a much different, progressive, path, had he chosen to do so. It is very easy to see why this section so deeply impressed and influenced Schönberg, Berg and Webern, when they attended the 1905 Vienna premiere conducted by Mahler. In fact, when Schönberg wrote in Pfitzner’s defence to his de-Nazification trial in 1947 he specifically referred to the friendship that had sprung up between the two composers following that Vienna premiere. Again, the plot is a distinct barrier to modern audiences. Minneleide was abducted by the Night Sorcerer and believed Siegnot dead, but somehow Siegnot takes this to indicate treachery and shamefulness on her part. It is even more difficult to feel any sympathy for Siegnot’s meat-headed treatment of Minneleide than it is for Lohengrin’s treatment of Elsa. However, there are great musical pleasures in this act and the concluding Nachspiel. There is a delightfully lyrical section, where Minneleide is adorned with jewels, a moving Funeral March for Siegnot, dividing Act 2 from the Nachspiel, and a wonderful choral finale, which brought Mahler’s 8th Symphony to mind. Pfitzner himself recorded the Funeral March twice, acoustically in about 1923 and electrically in 1927. The great majority of Pfitzner’s records show his taste for very slow tempi and these are no exception; Beermann takes 5:54 whereas Pfitzner’s electric recording comes in at about 7:24 and his acoustic at about 7:50, making for performances of less overt drama but much greater tragic depth.
The first night of the Chemnitz production was in November 2008, so by the time this cast was brought before the microphones in June 2009 they had had time to gain complete mastery of their roles, which is surely one of the reasons for the exceptionally convincing quality of this performance as a whole.
Siegnot is sung by American tenor Erin Caves, who has had a good career, mainly in secondary German houses such as Chemnitz, singing most of the heroic repertoire including Wagner’s Siegmund, Siegfried, Parsifal, Tristan, and Strauss’s Bacchus and Emperor (Frau ohne Schatten) for about 10 years. He sang Siegmund in the 2009 DVD of Walküre from Weimar. His performance here is very impressive; the voice is solid from top to bottom with no unsteadiness or strain at the top and he has excellent diction. He is able to sustain a fine legato in the lyrical sections, and, on this showing, deserves a much higher profile than he has achieved. I cannot think of anyone singing today, other than Jonas Kaufmann, who would be likely to make a notably better job of Siegnot. Although Astrid Weber’s profile is very similar to Erin Caves’s, her Minneleide is not of quite the same excellence. The voice is of reasonable quality, though without the ideal solidity of tone or refulgence at the top. The character does not really give much scope for interpretational detail or subtlety, but Weber makes her convincing. Despite being German-born, however, her diction is nowhere near as clear as that of her American co-principal. The Finnish bass Kouta Rasanen sings both the Waffenmeister and Night Sorcerer. Neither has a great deal to do in the opera, but he has a good, resonant bass voice. He is better as the Waffenmeister, where all he needs to do is sing with a generalised solemnity; as the Night Sorcerer he is very under-characterised, completely missing the character’s contempt and sarcasm. All the other minor characters are well taken and there are no weak links in the cast. The conductor Frank Beermann was General Music Director at Chemnitz from 2007 to 2016 and has recorded several obscure operas for CPO. His conducting on this recording is excellent, he clearly has a real feel for this type of music, and I certainly intend to investigate his recording of Schreker’s Der Schmied von Ghent now. He gives full weight to both the fin de siècle lyricism and the modernist elements, with which Pfitzner was experimenting. Even though he was comparatively new at Chemnitz when this recording was made in 2009, he clearly has a rapport with the orchestra, who play very well indeed for him.
Both recording and presentation are excellent. So many CD sets nowadays fail to provide decent documentation, such as was standard in the days of the LP, that it was almost a surprise to find that the set included a full printed libretto with English translation. The translation is a little amusing at times, often being incredibly awkward and literal. It felt as though it had been done by an internet translation service, which seemed to be confirmed when on page 45 the Moormann addresses Minneleide by name and the corresponding translation line reads ”Minne, love, leide, sorrow”, but full marks to CPO for providing it.
CPO have done sterling service for Pfitzner over the years, having recorded all his lieder on five CDs and many of his orchestral works, but none has been better than this set. I enjoyed it immensely and consider it a real discovery.