Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949)
Violin Concerto in B minor, op. 34 (1924) 32'03;
Duo for Violin, Cello and Orchestra op. 43 (1937) 13'40;
Scherzo for Orchestra (1888) 10'38.
Saschko Gawriloff, Violin; Julius Berger, Cello
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, cond. Werner Andreas Albert
cpo 999 079-2. 1990.
Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra in A minor op. 52 (1943)
Concerto in G major for Violoncello and Orchestra in One Movement op
Concerto for Violoncello and Oechestra in A minor op posth. (1888)
David Geringas, Violoncello
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, cond. Werner Andreas Albert
Cpo 999 135-2. 1993.
CRITICAL SUMMARY: Beautiful, intensely lyrical, mostly gentle, late
Romantic music, beautifully performed and recorded, by a composer not
known as one of the beautiful people. Particularly compelling Violin
These are not recent releases, but three months ago I happened to hear
the Violin Concerto on Wisconsin Public Radio, found it arresting, and
acquired this recording of it. A few weeks later I bought the cello
concertos and today his symphonies arrived in the mail.
After quite a few hearings I have decided that as far as I am concerned
the Pfitzner Violin Concerto is one of the most satisfying concertos for
that instrument. The cello concertos and this early Scherzo are also
very fine. That these and other Pfitzner works are not played or recorded
much outside of Germany is, I tend to assume, largely due to strictly
extra-musical reasons, which I have been wrestling with and will address
Pfitzner's creative life spanned well over half a century, from around
1888 to the 1940s. His style was always conservative and did not really
change much over the years. He was not nearly conservative enough for
the truly reactionary Director of the Frankfurt Conservatory, who,
incensed that Pfitzner's first cello concerto included instrumentation
for three trombones, and had 'Wagnerian' sounding harmonic augmentation
of triads, stormed out of the trial performance, as Pfitzner relates,
so Pfitzner never graduated. Notwithstanding, Pfitzner certainly mastered
all needed compositional skills. Hans-Christian Schmidt, a musicologist
on the faculty of the University of Osnabruck, with a few books to his
credit, and who contributes extensive analytical notes to these recordings,
attests to this. Schmidt calls Pfitzner 'as much a faded traditionalist
as a feeble avant-gardist,' a 'conservative nonconformist' who 'does not
admit of stylistic classification.'
In general, Pfitzner's music is melodically beautiful and he uses a large
orchestra sparingly, with particularly effective use of the woodwinds
and, on occasion, solo trumpet and horn. He uses the full range of his
solo instruments; dynamics range from very soft to very loud, though are
generally quite moderate; tempos range from quite slow to presto.
Structurally, this music uses variation form, counterpoint and more or
less continuous development.
The lively and energetic (Lebhaft, energisch) opening movement of the
VIOLIN CONCERTO is intensely lyrical rather than dramatic, and at the
beginning both violin and orchestra soar, though melody in this movement
is frequently in short phrases. All of the ensemble's sections have
their say, with flute trills and oboe solos, some brief but haunting
horn and trumpet calls, then prominent brass, followed by a skipping
motion in the strings, which is later taken up by the soloist. Drums,
cymbals and triangle are also heard, though percussion is not particularly
prominent in Pfitzner's concertos.
The short, slow second movement is marked 'sehr getragen' (very stately)
though this does not preclude a very loud central passage, rather
Mahleresque, perhaps, which subsides nicely. It begins with a beautiful
oboe solo and toward the end there is some exquisite music where the
oboe plays over the strings, is joined by the harp, which has the last
The long third movement, close to half the length of the whole concerto,
begins with long melodic lines, and contains striking, in fact gorgeous
outpouring of melody, sometimes perky, sometimes soaring, as in Prokofiev's
violin concertos. There is also a fortissimo outburst, and the buildup
at the end is reminiscent of Richard Strauss, though there is a hushed
moment before the music rushes to a final thump. I might prefer that
Pfitzner had re-written the ending, though I am sure that live audiences
would have no objection to it.
Schmidt, in his extensive notes, calls this work brilliant and
inspired (a comment that would have pleased Pfitzner, who valued musical
inspiration highly). He likes Pfitzner's structural approach, his subtle,
transformative 'thematic dramaturgy' and his 'concentration and economy.'
Somewhat confusingly, he sees the concerto as 'of one movement in the
guise of four movements,' though he does proceed in terms of the three
movements I mentioned. In the first of these, Schmidt notes three themes,
with the third of these having seven variations; the last of those
prepares thematically for the slow movement. The cadenza is transformative
rather than flashy.
Schmidt describes the rhythm of the slow movement as 'steady forward
striding,' and he finds the third movement humorous and witty. THE DUO
FOR VIOLIN, CELLO AND ORCHESTRA, less than half the length of the Violin
Concerto, and without key signature, is in three movements (6'32, 2'40,
4'43) which flow into one another. In fact, the music is mostly of a
flowing sort, and quite beautiful. Schmidt calls it chromatic but tonal,
songlike and rhapsodic. He finds the first two themes of the first
movement dark and mournful, which I would not have been immediately
inclined to identify as such. In the third movement Schmidt notes a
Brahmsian 'permanent development.'
The ten and a half minute SCHERZO was written when Pfitzner was a
nineteen year old student at the Frankfurt Conservatory. I find it a
delightful work, with vigorous dance-like rhythms and appealing melody.
It reminded me of some of Dvorak's scherzos; Schmidt sees 'fugal style'
akin to Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night music; and a musical friend I tried
a blindfold test on thought it sounded somewhat like Bruckner. Pfitzner
uses some pentatonic scales in this work.
THE CELLO CONCERTOS are all very pleasurable to listen to, and span
Pfitzner's long career. The first was written around the time of the
Scherzo, for a fellow-student who was a cellist. Its initial hostile
reception was recounted in my introduction to Pfitzner above. Its next
misadventure was being returned to the composer by Max Bruch for want
of the necessary postage. Then it went missing, until 1928, only to be
lost again during World War II. In 1975 it turned up in the Austrian
National Library in Vienna and was premiered in Wurzburg in 1977.
Meanwhile, its composer had used material he remembered from this
concerto in his later A minor concerto.
The 1888 A minor cello concerto is in two long movements (11'38 and
13'53). Each begins slowly and quietly. It is a virtuoso vehicle for
the soloist, making use of the instrument's full range; there are double
stops and rapid passages. Schmidt sees the orchestral part as accompaniment
only, though I would not say that. The orchestra has plenty to do and
is sometimes quite forceful about it, and at one point is downright
Tchaikovskian in its intensity. Midway in the first movement there is
vigorous expression of rising excitement. A drum roll concludes the
movement. The second movement has a beautiful hushed beginning for
strings and the soloist enters after a full minute with a long melody,
mostly legato. Winds and horns effectively join in and, midway there
is really loud brass. Pfitzner is a wonderful orchestrator. Calm and
quiet return in the last three minutes of the work, in great contrast
to the way the Violin Concerto ends.
THE G MAJOR CONCERTO from 1935, in a single - nearly fifteen minute--
movement, begins melodiously with the solo cello, upper strings soaring
above, until the accompaniment becomes chirping in character. This is
very lyrical music. Its character changes a third of the way through
with a trumpet call and a faster pace. Lyricism yields to intensity for
a time but this in turn eases. Winds and brass become more prominent
and eventually there is a loud outburst. A nice trumpet solo introduces
a rather wistful cello in dialogue with a flute before a quiet end.
The cello in this concerto takes a role as melodic leader rather than
virtuoso vehicle. Schmidt finds a single theme with continuous
development throughout and says 'this is the only thing that really
happens in this concerto.'
THE A MINOR CONCERTO from 1943 is in four movements designated, respectively:
restful, not too fast, solemn and Allegretto. Its duration is less than
19 minutes. The not too fast movement is lively just the same, and the
solemn movement seems more pensive than solemn to me. The fourth movement
is vigorous and the four movements work together very well. The opening
movement is by far the most substantial and quite lovely. Schmidt, with
slight hesitation, sees this late work as retrospective. As mentioned,
Pfitzner reworked some older material for this work, including one of
his op. 32 songs.
PFITZNER THE MAN. In view of the loveliness of his music, I have agonized
over how or whether to include an account of Pfitzner's life and character
and what I have decided is not only that I would hear about it if I did
not, but that it is an important part of the social history of German
music in the 20th Century.
In his early maturity Pfitzner had a tentative friendship with Gustav
Mahler and a friendship with Alma Mahler sufficient to arouse some
jealousy on Gustav's part. In her 1946 book, GUSTAV MAHLER, MEMORIES
and LETTERS, Alma relates how Gustav initially refused Pfitzner's
'degrading' pleas that Mahler perform his opera 'Die Rose vom Liebesgarten'
because the libretto was bad, too long and with obscure symbolism. Later
Mahler evidently did perform it (perhaps after revisions?) and even
attended another production of it.
In 1923, as I was very sorry to learn from Alex Ross' recent THE REST
IS NOISE (which leaves open the question as to whether there was such a
thing as a Nazi sound) Pfitzner was visited in the hospital by the already
active Hitler and they discussed 'Jewish war crimes.' A hugely ironic
turn is that at the time Pfitzner was wearing 'a thin, faintly rabinnical
beard,which gave Hitler the false imprssion that the composer was Jewish.'
Goebbels subsequently wrote (in 1943) that 'The Fuehrer is strongly
opposed to Pfitzner...He considers him a half Jew.' Notwithstanding,
Schmidt reports, Pfitzner in 1937 had somehow become a Reichskultursenator.
After the war he underwent denazification.
Many years ago it was Jacques Barzun, the cultural historian among whose
books were BERLIOZ AND HIS CENTURY, as well as DARWIN, MARX, WAGNER, who
first impressed on me the truth that even the most intense appreciation
of beauty and the arts is wholly insufficient to make one a good person.
The fact that some Nazis were aesthetes certainly is more than enough
to prove this. Conversely, though, even persons who are less than morally
admirable may be capable of producing good works of art or music.
Regardless of one's judgment on Pfitzner the human being, he did succeed
in producing some fine concertos which are well worth hearing. In fact,
if it had not been for his odious later personal history his music very
likely would be more widely appreciated.
Copyright 2008 by R. James Tobin
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