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CLASSICAL  March 2009

CLASSICAL March 2009

Subject:

Pfitzner's Soul

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 31 Mar 2009 17:01:44 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (81 lines)

Hans Pfitzner

*  Von deutscher Seele

Solveig Kringelborn (soprano),
Nathalie Stutzmann (mezzo),
Christopher Ventris (tenor)
Robert Holl (bass)
Rundfunkchor Berlin, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Ingo Metzmacher.
Phoenix Edition 145 Total time: 95:08 (2 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: Darkness in the woods.

Normally, I have little difficulty separating an artist from his art.
Wagner?  No problem.  Meistersinger, for me as good as opera gets, sings
more wisely than its composer knew.  Hans Pfitzner, on the other hand,
bothers me no end.  Not to mince words, an anti-Semitic, Fascist son of
a bitch, he hero-worshipped Hitler from the Twenties on (although he
never officially joined the Nazi party).  In fact, he so idolized der
Fuehrer that he creeped out even Hitler.  Pfitzner's anti-Semitic rants
earned him the nickname "the Rabbi" from Hitler himself, who suspected
that the composer protested a bit too much.  Yet, like Wagner, Pfitzner
was not above using great Jewish musicians to present his works, like
the white mobsters who owned the Cotton Club and wouldn't allow blacks
in the audience.

The large cantata Von deutscher Seele ("of the German soul") comes from
1921 and sets text by the great religious and nature poet Eichendorff,
one of the inspirational genii of German Romanticism.  If you know
Pfitzner's history, the title alone may warn you off, but in fact there's
no overt nationalism in the piece at all.  The texts don't even mention
the word "German." Curiously, the title comes from a Jewish writer,
Ludwig Jacobowski, who used it to name his collection of German folk
songs.  By his selection of poems, Pfitzner apparently wants to express
or define German sensibility.  The poems concentrate on the power of
night and dreams, the solitude and powerlessness of each man, the mercy
of God.  I've no idea what a psychologist would make of all this,
especially since Pfitzner wrote it in the wake of Germany's defeat in
the Great War.  However, this concatenation of ideas, in the light of
subsequent history, quivers for me like a snake under the leaves.

Still, the test of a score lies in its hearing.  I wish I could tell you
it was awful, so that my moral universe would keep its balance.  However,
this is a gorgeous work, undeservedly neglected.  I gave in to the luxury
of loving it.  The work divides into two large parts: "Mensch und Natur"
(man and nature) and "Leben und Singen" (living and singing).  To me,
the first part may be one of the finest chorus-and-orchestra extravaganzas
ever, almost at the level of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.  Pfitzner railed
against Modernism (especially Busoni) as early as 1917, but he certainly
took a lot from its salad days.  You don't have to listen all that
carefully to suss out the Mahler and early Schoenberg in it -- its turns
of melody, its harmonies, its orchestration.  For me the highpoints lie
in the instrumental sections: "Tod als Postillion" (death as coachman),
a wild ride; "Abend" and "Nacht," two very poetic nocturnes.  The actual
word-setting strikes me as pretty weak, as if tacked on to the notes.
Brahms and Mahler would have done better.  However, Pfitzner's music
more than carries you through.  Of real power is a highly original chorale
(comparable to the finale of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony) that
appears toward the end of the first part.

If Pfitzner had ended his cantata with Part I, I think he would have
had the stronger work.  Part II never returns to the peaks already
established.  Nevertheless, one still finds moments of interest, especially
the "Instrumental Prelude," very similar in its propelling rhythms to
Pfitzner's bete noir, Busoni.  Close your eyes, and you can hear the
ancestor of the opening to Weill's Mahagonny.

The performance is good, although you can imagine a better one.  The
soloists do okay, without anybody standing out.  I liked bass Robert
Holl the best.  The orchestra does better than the choir, but the choir
has the harder job, trying to make sense of Pfitzner's rather cavalier
approach to musical declamation.  Nevertheless, recommended to fans of
the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.

Steve Schwartz

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