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Hans PFITZNER (1869-1949)
Piano Concerto in E flat minor, Op.31 [43.02]
Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Tag- und Nachtstücke, Op.44 [31.03]
Markus Becker (piano)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Constantin Trinks
rec. 2018, Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin
HYPERION CDA68258 [74.08]

I first encountered the Pfitzner Piano Concerto back in 1988. I made its acquaintance then on a CPO disc that formed part of a series of releases of Pfitzner’s orchestral music, conducted by Werner Andreas Albert. For some years these CDs afforded me a delightful sense of comic relief – not because of the music itself, earnestly romantic in a style that befitted the composer of Palestrina, an opera once described as “Parsifal without the jokes” – but because of the booklet notes provided by one Professor Doctor Hans-Christian Schmidt in translations by Susan Marie Praeder who struggled valiantly but in vain with some of the most impenetrable German academicism I have ever had the good fortune to encounter. One example (from his notes on the Symphony in C sharp minor) may suffice: “We have to try to understand the Pfitzner of this symphony in allegorical terms, to grasp him metaphorically and literally, to take the Zuständlichkeit of his music at face value.” (One can almost see the translator throwing up her hands in despair.) The individual CD releases that furnished the occasion for this deathless prose have long since succumbed to the deletions axe, but I would most earnestly hope that these essays are preserved in the still-available multi-disc CPO set for the delectation of future generations.

It is thus with some sorrow (but even more relief) that I have to report the sleeve notes by my good friend Nigel Simeone for this new Hyperion release cannot begin to match the sheer verbosity of his German predecessor. The new release also scores over the CPO disc by presenting us with the music as Pfitzner actually wrote it. Volker Banfield and his conductor removed a full hundred bars of the score, making cuts in three of the four movements, thereby reducing the length of the original CD down to a miserly 38 minutes. Although the CPO booklet does provide an extensive analysis, including eight actual music examples, it can hardly recompense the listener for such vandalism in the case of such a seldom-heard work even if one of the cuts is feebly justified by the good Professor Doctor Schmidt as “appropriate”. We have a full extra five minutes of music restored in this new release.

The work itself is a full-blooded romantic concerto which sets out with a blisteringly acrobatic challenge from the soloist, rivalling the rather better-known Busoni concerto in terms of sheer majestic force. After a while it becomes much more subdued, with the woodwind writing rather acerbic in tone, before leading back into a more lyrically inflected recapitulation (it is here that Banfield excised some two minutes of music). There is an almost sinister feeling to the transmuted material with its crawling chromatic harmonies in the bass; the music has echoes of the disputatious cardinals in the Second Act of Palestrina. The following scherzo has a contrasting lightness of touch, including some surprisingly jazz-inflected brassy details in the perpetuum mobile (Pfitzner’s scoring is generally less heavy than many of his late-romantic contemporaries, and this movement has an almost air-borne sense of lift). The slow movement, with its prominent solo violin at the opening, has a sense of serene calm that recalls Reger’s solitary hermit in his Böcklin Pictures or the opening of the Empress’s trial scene in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. This is very beautiful music indeed, with its delicately poised high string lines suspended over slow rolling piano arpeggios, with an ending that recalls the modal renaissance inflections of Palestrina, before a brass chorale launches the finale. This movement is probably the weakest of the four. It begins in a light-hearted spirit but seems rather too quickly to become entangled in contrapuntal textures, which in many ways justify the composer’s description of the tempo as “ungainly,” with a piano part that in places seems to become almost semi-detached from its surroundings. But the results certainly have the sense of ‘humour’ that the composer clearly intended, even when they do not carry absolute conviction. Markus Becker plays superbly and confidently throughout even in the most heavily scored passages, and the orchestra under Constantin Trinks are responsive and idiomatic. The point where they break off suddenly to introduce the busy fugal cadenza is a moment that brings a ready smile to the listener’s face.

Apart from the CPO collection, there are two other performances of the concerto currently listed as available on Archive. A 1992 Marco Polo recording with Wolf Harden and the Slovak Radio Orchestra clocks in at 40 minutes and therefore presumably makes some or all of the same cuts as the CPO disc; it never appears to have been reissued on Naxos, although the CD does contain a couple of orchestral operatic excerpts as fill-ups. The other is an uncut performance by Tzimon Barto with the Dresden Staatskapelle under Christian Thielemann. The conductor has a high reputation in the music of Pfitzner (his 1996 recording of the preludes from Palestrina is something very special indeed) and the issue was well received by Gramophone although the recording of a complete live concert, which spreads over two discs, has a resonant acoustic that rather lacks punch. (A 1943 live recording by Walter Gieseking was described as “atrocious” by Fanfare when it was released in 1997. It seems to have vanished without a trace although it was available for some years.)

There is no rival recording at all of the Braunfels Tag- und Nachtstücke. It is hardly surprising as the work lay unperformed for many years until its première in 2017, following the discovery of the score in the Braunfels family archives. Like so much of the music of Braunfels, it does not deserve to be cast into oblivion; and given the sudden enthusiasm of record companies for the exploration of this repertoire, I have little doubt that rivals will appear before long.

The work opens in a mysterious manner, almost impressionist in style, before it rises to a Straussian climax heralded by a busy phrase almost straight out of Don Juan. This then forms the basis for an improvisatory piano passage, finally leading without a break into a delicate scherzo which only achieves a climax in its closing bars. The ensuing march has even more of the feel of a scherzo, with a sense of Prokofiev-like tongue planted firmly in the cheek. The slow movement does not have the emotional weight of the Pfitzner, but its mysterious quality has an almost Ravel-like delicacy of texture in places and it achieves a blissful serenity at the end before the brisk and busy finale. At one moment we almost hear Franck’s Symphonic Variations in the abrupt descending phrases, but these serve to spice up a boisterous conclusion. Again Becker is a tower of strength, and Trinks is responsive; the timpani in the finale of the Braunfels have a real sense of fun. The recording is excellent – and, as already noted, the booklet notes by Nigel Simeone (in English, French and German) give the listener all the guidance needed. Another feather in the cap of Hyperion’s ongoing and illuminating series of romantic piano concertos.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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