Classical Editor: Rob Barnett
PFITZNER's PALESTRINA - The 'Musical Legend' and its Background by Owen Toller
There seems to be a family of twentieth century operas which enjoy high repute among many critics but which have only the rarest outings in the opera house or concert hall. In this family you will find Busoni's Doktor Faustus, Enescu's Oedip, Szymanowski's Krol Roger, Inglis Gundry's Galileo (though not really known to the critics at all yet), Bloch's Macbeth and quite a few others. I have always viewed Palestrina in this select company - not that artistically these operas have a great deal in common apart from neglect and reputation.
Rather like Franz Schmidt in Austria whose orchestral music held the concert stage in his homeland long before it began to assert itself further West, Pfitzner's opera has for years been held in the highest regard in Germany. We used to read of the Vaughan Williams export factor. This refers to a composer whose music succeeds and is loved in his homeland but which withers when taken on tour abroad. VW's symphonies etc have confounded that factor. It remains for Pfitzner's oeuvre to do the same thing. Schmidt's has certainly begun to take the world stage - a trend that began with the Mehta and Decca LP of the Fourth Symphony.
The opera dates from 1917 at the height of the world bloodletting yet Pfitzner's music seems largely untroubled by that (nothing unusual there). The detail of the plot can be omitted here suffice to say that much of the story tracks the tension between state decree and personal conscience - always a relevant theme. It is not exclusively a matter of ethics. The personal dimension is part of the fabric with love (though not the conventional passion) and friendship also having their place.
My interest has been sharpened recently by reading Owen Toller's book and listening to the Berlin Classics set reviewed on this site.
Toller's exhaustive book digs deep into the music and the biographical context with points spanning the two interacting domains. There is also a chapter (pp215-272) on the historical background. I cannot pretend that this chapter makes enthralling reading but the problem is the subject not Toller's exploration.
Clearly much thought and love have been channelled into the pages of this book. Rewards for the reader are commensurate. Negative observations are only twofold. Firstly the audience for the book seem likely to get the most from it if they have the score lying in front of them - not many will have that privilege although I am sure it can be borrowed via Inter-Library Loan (in the UK). Secondly the highly detailed tracking of the opera and plot is presented with landmarks by reference ONLY to the score. Do not misunderstand. The text reads coherently by itself. My 'problem' is that for most people who have any interest this book will be read in parallel with the DG set of CDs (the very fine Berlin Classics set is a newcomer on the scene and regrettably seems not to be as easily accessible as the older DG set).
How much more valuable this book would have been had it been keyed into the DG discs with episodes and moments shown by reference also to timing readings within tracks.
There should also have been a list of recordings both private and commercial. It would have been goods to have documented the dates of radio broadcasts and their participants. Radio broadcasts have since the 1950s often been memorialised in private tapes so the exercise is not that abstruse.
That said there could hardly be a more through dissection of this loveable and lovely music. Toller's warm feelings for the music, however, seem suppressed. They surface only rarely. His approach is very much analytical.
There is a good index, list of works, bibliography, a brief performance history and a celebrity preface from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who sang in the famous DGG (as it then was) recording.
Toller's engagement and enthusiasm for the opera began as a performer when he sang in the Abbey Opera (London) production in 1997.
A warm recommendation for this book to anyone having the slightest curiosity about the opera. However do hear the music WITH this companion volume.
I recommend the volume and congratulate Mr Toller on his achievement and thank Toccata for their judgement in publishing this important work. It stands happily alongside OUP's 1992 'The Music of Hans Pfitzner' by John Williamson. What a pity that the book refers so little to the DG recording.
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