Pfitzner Die Rose vom Liebesgarten
Beermann, cond; Erin Caves (Siegnot);
Kouta Räsänen (Der Waffenmeister); Andreas Kindschuh (Der Sangesmeister);
Astrid Weber (Minneleide); Jana Büchner (Schwarzhilde); Tiina Pentinen
(Rotelse); André Riemer (Der Moormann); Ch & Children’s Ch of Op Chemnitz;
CPO 777 500-2 (3 CDs: 165:08) Live: Chemnitz
If you love Pfitzner’s Palestrina,
you are going to want this. That is a big “if” though, as the composer’s
best-known work divides opinion, exciting near fanatical devotion in its
admirers, but leaving others wondering what the fuss is all about. Die Rose vom Liebesgarten is an earlier
work, Palestrina was completed in
1917, this in 1901, but the similarities outweigh the differences. Where Palestrina inhabits a devout and reverential
soundworld, Die Rose is more
fairytale, but with a similar combination of solemnity and mystical aura.
Although this an audio-only release, it is also clear that Die Rose shares the greatest failing of Palestrina, the inability to function effectively as staged drama.
But if you don’t worry too much about the story, or the flimsy allegorical
characters, and just listen to the music, there are many delights here, and
this new recording presents the work in the best possible light.
As usual, CPO provide full documentation, the accompanying booklet containing
a side-by-side German and English libretto, a substantial essay on the work and
cast bios (all translated into beautifully idiomatic English), and a brief
story synopsis. Given the care with which all this is done, the brevity of that
synopsis is surely intentional: They don’t want us dwelling too much on the
So I’ll be brief: Pfitzner and his librettist, James Grun, elaborate on
a series of paintings by Hans Thoma, one of which features on the album cover.
They depict a make-believe medieval world, all knights and sorcerers. The music
of the opera continually struggles to move out of the direct influence of Wagner,
and the libretto offers no help at all. The hero is a knight named Siegnot
(yes, really!), and just as in Wagner, the early formalities involve him coming
by the name and learning its significance. The eponymous “Garden of Love” is
inhabited by Flower Girls, more Rhinemaidens and Flowermaidens, and we also meet
a “Bog man,” clearly modeled on Mime. The Bog Man tells Siegnot of Minneleide,
trapped in an enchanted underworld by the Night Sorcerer and his dwarves (so, still
half in Rheingold). Siegnot attempts
to rescue Minneleide. Both die in the process, but are reunited in death to
spend eternity in the Garden of Love.
The music sits somewhere between Wagner and Palestrina. Pfitzner occasionally wanders into Parsifal for a few bars, but then returns to a more distinctive style.
There are two prominent Leitmotifs, a stirring horn call, played out in
daringly long notes at the opening, and a swooning romantic theme: Both are
memorable and distinctive, aiding the score’s individuality. Those motifs
translate well to the vocal writing as well, which has an endearing speech-like
quality, but which also blends well into the orchestral textures. The orchestration
is truly Wagnerian, a definite quality, with prominent horns, interesting, if
subtle percussion, and richly voiced string accompaniments.
The booklet essay, by Michael Schwalb, gives an overview of the work’s performance
history. An early advocate was Bruno Walter, who appealed to his boss at Vienna
Opera, Gustav Mahler, to conduct it there. He eventually succeeded thanks to
the intervention of Alma, whom Walter won round to the cause. The Vienna
production wasn’t the first, but it put the opera on the map. In an interesting
aside, Schwalb discusses the significance of the opera on later Viennese
composers. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern all attended Mahler’s Vienna
performances. Webern soon quoted the music in his Five Orchestral Pieces, op.
10, while the long-held horn notes in the introduction not only found their way
into Marie’s death scene in Wozzeck,
but even inspired Schoenberg’s theory of Klangfarbenmelodie.
Given that historical significance, the opera is
clearly due an airing, and this recording is all that Pfitzner fans could hope
for. The recording is from live performances in Chemnitz, the company there
taking an even bigger gamble in actually staging the work. The production was
directed by Jürgen
R. Weber, and from the production images it looks to be a suitably lurid
affair. The sound quality on the recording is very good, but it does sound like
it is taken from the stage, with voices occasionally distant. The musical
standards here are excellent, suggesting a committed company-wide project to do
the best for this neglected work.
Frank Beermann conducts with efficiency
and clarity; he doesn’t over-sentimentalize, but he always gives this highly Romantic
music its full expressive weight. That said, I wonder what Kubelík would have
made of this score, given his sublime transformative power with Palestrina, an opera that you won’t hear
the same again after you’ve heard his recording. For that matter, it is
interesting to speculate what Mahler made of it. Beermann is probably less
expansive, and a little more relaxed, than either of those giants, and he gives
the impression of moulding the music to his own personal vision. Vocally, this
performance is excellent, almost uniformly so. Tenor Erin Caves is confident
and secure as Siegnot, and is ably partnered by soprano Astrid Weber as
Minneleide, her tone full and rich, though it thins towards the top. One of
Pfitzner’s main motifs is a rising octave figure, and some of the singers
struggle with the top note, especially in such declamatory phrasing. The worst
offender is Andreas Kindshuch as Der
Sangesmeister, and his occasionally wayward tuning makes him the one weak
link in the cast. No such complaints though for the Chemnitz chorus and
children’s choir, who are kept busy thoughout. The orchestra is also on
excellent form, and the horn section deserves special praise, providing a key
element of this soundscape.
So, have a flick though the libretto for
curiosity’s sake, than forget all about the story, sit back, and luxuriate in
three hours of exotic and beautifully rendered fairytale music. Then file it
under “Guilty Indulgences.”