Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

HANS PFITZNER (1869-1949) Palestrina - A musical legend in three acts (1917)     Cast as below,  Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, BerlinStaatskapelle Berlin/Otmar Suitner. Recorded live: Schauspielhaus, Berlin in June 1986 (Acts 1 and 3) and January 1988 (Act 2) 3 CDs BERLIN CLASSICS 0310 001 [203 minutes]
(The Amazon link is to a 2CD set which appears to be the same performance as above)
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Peter Schreier (ten): Palestrina
Siegfried Lorenz (bar): Borromeo
Ekkehard Wlaschiha (bass): Master of Ceremonies
Fritz Hubner Hübner (bass): Christoph Madruscht
Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (bar): Morone
Peter-Jürgen Schmidt (ten): Novagerio
Carola Nossek (sop): Ighino
Rosemarie Lang (con): Silla
Uta Priew (con): Lukrezia
Hermann Christian Polster (bass): Pope Pius IV
Reiner Süss (bar): Cardinal of Lorraine
and others

Pfitzner was, rather like Othmar Schoeck, an out and out romantic firmly grounded in Schubert and Schumann. His contemporaries Reger, Franz Schmidt and Josef Marx, while each distinctive, found inspiration in the same affluently inspirational spring.

The opera has a mainly male cast, and in only that sense, is rather like Janacek's From the House of the Dead. It will be well known to some listeners from the three orchestral interludes which have occasionally been excerpted for concert and disc. The opera itself, while focusing on the least yielding of subject matter, proves to be a treasure-house of liquidly luminescent music: playing and singing. Viennese melody, dark dramatic brass interjections, Korngoldian sunshine are all to be found here. The pinnacle of the work is the sheerly magical scene with the nine ghostly 'Masters' encouraging the disillusioned composer to return to composition. The parallels between the plot and Pfitzner's real life are clear. The work runs circa three hours but with the acts split, in terms of time, in a rough and ready ratio of 3:2:1.

Pfitzner's music has on occasion been condemned because of his association with the Third Reich. His music lives quite independently of its creator. However even at the tabloid 'ad hominem' level this situation is not at all clear. There are conflicts and discontinuities. Pfitzner was appointed Reich's Senator of the Arts during the 1930s. He was also an awkward high profile supporter of Jewish friends and eventually stood down from the Senatorial office.

Pfitzner was himself a resolute friend of another Hans, and an infamous one at that; Hans Frank, Hitler's trusted plenipotentiary, Governor-General of Poland. When Pfitzner's home in Munich was bombed in 1943 he was invited to stay indefinitely with the other Hans in his Cracow residence. He wrote a musical encomium for Frank. This is the Krakaue Begrüßung or The Cracow-Greeting. This overture was conducted by Hans Swarowsky. Now when is someone going to record this work? As it is the work has disappeared and its opus number allocated to the second version of the opera Das Christelflein. We can note in passing that various strange things have happened to works with tragically stupid or criminal associations: Richard Strauss's song Das Bächlein dedicated to Goebbels is published minus the dedication, while both Richard Trunk's Hitler-dedicated Feier der neuen Front (1933) and John Nepomuk David's motet setting Hitler's words have been elided from worklists.

Pfitzner's defiance of ReichsMarshal Göring drew threats of consignment to Oranienburg concentration camp and festering disillusion in Pfitzner himself. His friendship with Hans Frank extended to sending messages of sympathy to Frank while the one-time potentate was standing trial for war crimes at Nürnberg. Frank was executed. Pfitzner's wrong-headed naivety was compounded perhaps by senility. We must remember that he was born in 1869 and by 1939 was 70 and 77 in 1946.

Pfitzner was born in Russia of a Saxon father. He was brought up from age 3 in Germany. Initially his musical style was indebted to Wagner (e.g. his opera Der arme Heinrich, 1893). Later the style softened but remained fulsomely romantic in touch with the extended Golden Age of the German poets: (Möricke, Goethe, Heine). His masterly Von Deutsche Seele sets Eichendorff poems. After a sallow decline he died in Salzburg. Ironically this was the city whose festival he had, in 1939, shunned in deference to NSDAP foreign policy.

This Berlin Classics recording is up against considerable competition. The DG Kubelik version (427 417 2GC3) has been around on silver disc since 1989 having been recorded in the early 1970s. Kubelik is (and I speak from memory here) every bit the committed champion for a beloved neglected work. His starry cast is 1960s Golden Age with Karl Ridderbusch, Bernd Weikl, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey, Helen Donath, Brigitte Fassenbaender and Nicolai Gedda as Palestrina.

Recorded nearly twenty years later the present set sounds very good while a scintilla of shrillness reportedly affects the DG set. That hint is not at all evident here. Technically and artistically this Berlin Classics box is a most satisfying set and one that although it does not supersede the glories of the DG set complements it and in some cases excels it. Both the orchestra and the loving empathy of the much undervalued Othmar Suitner are never in doubt. That is apparent from the opening bars. The singers and the performance generally benefit from the live environment and their ease, one with the other, must surely be down to their having grown together into the roles in the opera house. Peter Schreier's voice is more honeyed of tone than Fischer-Dieskau's in the earlier DG recording (which I recall from broadcast during the 1970s).

The booklet notes (to which I am indebted for information recycled above) are in German, English and French. They are admirable with the English translation reading with refreshingly fluency. The author is Manfred Haedler and, going by the English version, successfully blend the factual and the analytical. Fortunately we are not treated to opaque musical analysis. Instead some flavour of the work is given, the plot (not the most humanely promising of subjects) outlined and Pfitzner, the man and musician, introduced to us.

There is an OUP biography of Pfitzner by John Williamson although I have not seen it. Owen Toller's highly detailed guide to the opera, its context and relationships to ancient and contemporary history is published by Martin Anderson's Toccata Press (to be reviewed) and is well worth your investment if you are totally captivated by Palestrina; as well you might.

I have said very little about the opera's plot. It is an echo of latter-day collisions between personal and cultural convictions, power-bloc art and governmental politics. Where these great pressure plates meet and grind can be found both Palestrina in his time and Pfitzner in his. This has an enduring relevance for artists and other individuals caught between irreconcilable and conflicting pressures. It is at this level that the music speaks to us in tones that are serene, curvaceously shaped and heroic. If Puccinian love-matches are alien to this opera we need not lament. They are available in abundance elsewhere. In Pfitzner's Palestrina we have an opera with a serious focus and an access of lyricism matched by very few in this century. We have yet to hear Inglis Gundry's opera Galileo - a work of similar ambition. That Palestrina was written during the Great War at a time of large-scale mechanised slaughter only throws into sharper view this ardent humanitarian statement.

The Berlin Classics recording is firmly recommended.

See also book review:
PFITZNER's PALESTRINA - The 'Musical Legend' and its Background by Owen Toller


Rob Barnett


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