Kirill Petrenko conductor
OEHMS Classics OC 930 (3CDs)
Fans of Die Meistersinger or of Parsifal should check out Pfitzner's Palestrina. There are strong hints of both of Wagner's great operas here, but there are also important differences too. In fact, the greatness of Pfitzner's Magnum Opus lies in the composer's ability to work within a post-Wagnerian language, yet produce something that is both distinctive and accomplished on its own terms.
The English-speaking world has had a single chance in recent times to experience the opera live – and blew it. The Royal Opera in London staged the first professional UK production in 1998 under the baton of Christian Thielemann and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. This toured to New York, where is became only the second production ever to be seen in the States. But critical reaction in both countries, to the work as much as the production, was fairly indifferent, suggesting that it could be a very long time before we get another chance to see the work.
Audiences in German-speaking countries have been luckier, or more appreciative rather, and the piece has maintained the repertoire status it deserves there. From an English perspective, reading the publicity for this production, which it describes as the first in Frankfurt for fifty years, seems galling to say the least. Still, at least we get a chance to hear it in the form of a commercial recording taken from live performances. By my reckoning, this is about the third commercial recording to be made of the work, after an early 50s version from Bavarian State Opera and an early 80s studio recording from the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Rafael Kubelik.
This too is a meagre track record for a work that deserves far more exposure. In fairness, Pfitzner makes some expensive demands on opera houses, writing for a huge cast and an orchestra of Wagnerian dimensions. The three recordings chart an interesting performance history. Although the hero of the work is a Renaissance polyphonist (whose music is regularly referenced in the opera), Pfitzner himself was very much a late Romantic. He was also a bit of a Nazi in later life. That was decades after this opera was written, but even so, the unfashionability of both his musical aesthetics and his politics has led to a decidedly revisionist approach to Palestrina in almost every post-war production. So the three available recordings chart a progression from indulgent Romantic performance to a drier and less extrovert approach.
The visual aspect of recent stagings has followed a similar course. Productions during Pfitzner's lifetime (he died in 1949) tend to play it straight, with loyal representations of 16th century clerical garb and monochrome wood-panelled interiors. Since then, the tendency has been towards modest updating, maintaining respect for the church while distancing the work itself from the aesthetics of its creator. Harry Kupfer's new production for Frankfurt is very much in this tradition. The Council of Trent is presented in a moderately updated form. I notice from one of the production stills that one of the scenes takes place in the toilets, presumably a place where the cardinals can discuss their tactics away from the larger assembly. Oh, and Palestrina himself works at a Blüthner grand piano. All of which serves to contemporise the story a little, but without radically revising the subject or setting of Pfitzner's drama.
Kirill Petrenko takes a similar approach to the music. He clearly finds many unnecessary indulgences in Pfitzner's score, which he plays down while all the time trying to maintain the spirit of the work. I suspect the musical aspect of this production seemed more revisionist than the staging, but both work to a common aim of reconciling new and old. Can Pfitzner's score cope with this amount of revision? Yes, I think so, just about anyway. The level of detail in the score over issues of dynamics, phasing and tempos is quite high, and Petrenko's seems to follow these to the letter but not to allow himself any further interpretive indulgences. So there is a sense of strictness about the reading, and a lack of rubato that clearly seperates it from earlier versions, but for the most part, the spirit of the music survives unscathed.
Vocally, the opera is very much an ensemble piece, so it is well served by a company that can field a uniformly competent cast. None of the singers really excels, but all are equal to the demands of their roles. Peter Bronder gives an emotive but conversational reading of the title role. His voice is not large but is sufficient to project over the large orchestra. He could be a little more selective with his vibrato though, its not a big wobble but it is always there, however short the note. Wolfgang Koch achieves an ideal balance between friendly and menacing in the role of Borromeo. His tone is not as secure as we are used to hearing in his many Wagner roles, but for the most part it is rich and powerful. Britta Stallmeister sings the trouser role of Palestrina's son, Ighino. Her sound isn't very boyish, which may impact on the veracity of her stage presence, but she makes up for this with the almost child-like directness of her emotional engagement.
The Council of Trent scene in Act 2 succeeds because of the sheer number of distinctive male voices that Frankfurt Opera is able to find to fill the many parts. To pick out just a few: Alfred Reiter has a rich but surprisingly agile voice in the part of the Pope, Johannes Martin Kränzle brings an impressively sophisticated tone to the role of Morone, and Peter Marsh plays Abdisu, Patriach of Assyria with a convincing but almost comical tone of ageing frailty.
As ever, the orchestra of Frankfurt Opera are on top form. Like the singers, they too are put through their paces by Pfitzner's demanding score. The string sound is supple and always unified, the woodwind solos are characterful, and the brass really pack a punch. The sound quality is exceptionally fine, and the engineers make a good job of conveying the atmosphere of live performance, always paying attention to the positions of the singers in the stereo mix. One aspect of this score I hadn't really noticed in previous recordings, but which is crystal clear here, is the amount of bass in the orchestral writing. Pfitzner includes all sorts of unusual bass instruments in the woodwind section, and also puts the double basses to effective dramatic use at key moments in the drama, all of which shines through on this recording as never before.
The sound quality here is certainly the finest among any of the available recordings, and the musical qualities brought to the project by almost all the singers and instrumentalists are to its credit. In fact the only issue standing in the way of a hearty recommendation for this recording is its predecessor, the Kubelik version. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, or of the changing times, but I really don't think that Kirill Petrenko understands this music to the extent that Kubelik does. Many scenes require atmosphere and space, and all too often, Petrenko just pushes through onto the next scene. So the angels at the end of the first act are denied the ambience they need to create their ethereal effect, and the preludes to the first and third acts, both of which should set a reflective and melancholy mood, fail to do so. Conversely, the angry orchestral opening to the second act lacks both intensity and clarity, which given the quality of the orchestral playing and the sound reproduction can only be the fault of Petrenko. Also, good as the Frankfurt cast is, it pales in comparison to the absolutely exceptional lineup under Kubelik, led by two of the greatest singers of the 20th century, Nicolai Gedda and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
That said, Kubelik's version is not Gospel, and it is refreshing to hear another take on this score, which is always generous in its interpretive opportunities. If you've heard the Kubelik (it's on Spotify), then do have a listen to this version. There are many insights here that will come as a surprise, not least the crucial importance of the bass end of the orchestra to the unfolding of the drama. A useful complement then to the Kubelik version, but one which only goes to accentuate just how good that earlier recording is.