Rare is the
review of music by Hans Pfitzner that doesn't begin with the statement that he
is most famous for his 1915 opera Palestrina.
Following convention, I can at least add that the Frankfurt-based composer did
write not only several other operas but a number of chamber and orchestral
works, including a fine violin concerto (1923) that is not heard often enough.
Hyperion now offers us a CD of all of Pfitzner's music for cello and orchestra:
three concertos plus a violin/cello Duo, with distinguished performers on both
platform and podium. I confess that on first hearings much of the music did not
strike me as very distinctive—but it gradually won me over to its considerable
The cello concertos were written over quite a
span of time, with the earliest dating from 1888 and the most recent from
1943-44. Perhaps only the first of them securely fits Hyperion's label of "The
Romantic Cello Concerto" (this CD is No. 4 in their series), but the other
music, dating from the 1930s and ‘40s, is in a post-Romantic style that is
original and certainly 20th-Century in its own way, though very
conservative compared to modernists like Hindemith and Hartmann (not to mention
Berg and Schoenberg)--just to name some of Pfitzner's German/Austrian (and
The first of the A minor concertos was written for a classmate at the Frankfurt Conservatory when Pfitzner was a student of only 19. It was rejected for performance by the school's Director, who, according to Nigel Simeone's fine program notes, was "outraged" that Pfitzner had included three trombones in the scoring—this nearly a decade before Dvorak used the same plus tuba in his own cello concerto. The score was lost, though eventually recovered and premiered in 1977.
The 23-minute work is in only two movements. The
first opens with a richly melancholy Andante
molto moderato that soon moves into the main Allegro
section, charged with tragic feeling but with some sweeter passages. The cello
is given plenty of opportunity to soar with expansive melody and to exhibit
dramatic flair, while the orchestration is quite imaginative for such a young
composer. The second and longer movement, marked Adagio
molto tranquillo, is expansively lyrical, with many lovely dialogues
between the cello and orchestra members, including a solo horn as well as
clarinets and other woodwinds, sometimes with dramatic underpinnings from the
brass. A stormy outburst in the orchestra reprises the tragic Allegro
theme of the first movement, but a lengthy cadenza-like section for the cello,
with orchestral punctuation, takes us back to the calmer mood of the movement's
beginning, and indeed to an echo of the very beginning notes of the concerto.
The concerto in G major of 1935 (composed for
famed cellist Gaspar Cassadó) is a strikingly original work in one continuous
span of less than 15 minutes. The thematic material comes from the cellist's
solo music at the beginning, with only a kettledrum roll for accompaniment.
There are kaleidoscopic shifts in mood as tempos fluctuate between broodingly
slow and invigoratingly brisk. I'm reminded of Richard Strauss during certain
passages, and the main theme with its falling notes seems like an improbable
echo of Samuel Barber, but overall the work has quite its own personality.
The 1937 Duo for violin and cello is likewise in
one movement, but more traditionally structured with fast-slow-fast sections
following without pause. The opening has an attractive rocking, restless motion
(in 6/8 time, I'm guessing); the brief slow section has a sweet little tune that
repeats itself once too often; and the finale, with triple rhythm, has stronger
climactic moments than the earlier sections. Throughout, the violin and cello
blend with one another rather than carry out a dialogue or conflict, and both
blend well with the strings and solo woodwinds.
Finally, completed in 1943, we have the other
cello concerto in A minor, an 18-minute work in four movements. The Ruhig
opening movement—I hear it as more brooding and restless than the "restful"
marking suggests, though perhaps Pfitzner means simply to indicate a very
moderate tempo—is remarkable for a number of reasons. It has a pulsing,
triple-time rhythm and a couple of memorable themes (though the second seems
about to veer into the opening of Dvorak's Sixth Symphony). It has notable
woodwind passages, most startlingly when a solo clarinet plays a kind of
cadenza-duet with the cello at the end of the movement. And it quotes directly
the main theme from the composer's "lost" cello concerto: in a note attached to
the score Pfitzner calls it "a salute to my youth" embedded in "this work from
my old age." (He was 75 at the time.) The second movement is a vigorous scherzo;
the third, marked Feierlich ("solemn"),
has a noble simplicity; both movements use the "lost" theme in disguised form.
The finale, following without pause, is again in triple or 6/8 time, and returns
us to the restless, constantly shifting moods of the first movement, but with
the rhythmic insistence of the scherzo. The "lost" theme makes its final
appearance; before the movement's more vigorous main theme concludes the piece.
Hyperion places this concerto right after the "lost" work in A minor, I suppose for us to hear the thematic connections right away, though I think the G major concerto would have been a better contrast, with the later A minor concluding the disc in a satisfying way. Of course, one can program one's CD to do just that. Meanwhile, no one is likely to fault Hyperion for the engineering, including a very well-judged balance between soloist and orchestra. Alban Gerhardt's cello sound is gorgeous, and his "virtuoso" moments exciting, while Sebastian Weigle and the Berlin Radio Orchestra deliver impassioned performances, with important wind solos and groupings vividly brought out by the technicians.
Nigel Simeone's booklet essay has useful background and analysis of each of the works, but is perhaps most memorable for its history of the composer's relationship with Nazism. It appears that Pfitzner met Hitler in 1923 but made a bad impression on the future Fürher, who not only didn't like his music but thought he must have been part Jewish. So however often Pfitzner tried to toady up to the Nazis to get prestigious positions, he was always rebuffed for the rest of his career. This would be funny if the whole situation weren't so appalling.