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
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
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
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
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.