Cher Public

Between two worlds

If works like Salome and Erwartung defined modernism in the first decades of the 20th century, Die Tote Stadt and Palestrina represented the regressive avant garde. Though they had tormented protagonists, themes of death and other ingredients for a frenzied geschrei, neither could break free of the Romantic era’s pull, instead inhabiting a netherworld that’s sometimes described as “post-Wagnerian” or “Straussian.”

Repressed during the Nazi era, both re-emerged after World War II in German-speaking countries, where they were admired for their brainy sincerity and just maybe, some of the old-fangled overtones. A pair of 1950s performances now available on CD would provide the mortar for later stagings by provocative directors such as Götz Friedrich, Günter Krämer and Nikolaus Lehnhoff that nudged the works closer to the mainstream repertoire.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s youthful psychodrama is the more listenable of the pair and emerges in surprisingly good sound in a 1952 Bavarian Radio performance on Myto. The tale has often been compared to Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Paul, a grieving widower, sees the doppelgänger of his dead wife as her reincarnation, pursues her, then, riddled with guilt, strangles her with a plait of the late missus’ hair. Except it’s all a dream. Once awakened, the hero grasps the need to let go of the past and departs his “temple of memories.”

Inspired by Georges Rodenbach’s gloomy symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte, the 1920 opera’s themes of loss and reconcilement surely resonated with audiences traumatized by the Great War before the Third Reich designated it degenerate. It’s held back by an overripe, at times kitschy score and the heavy-handed influence of the composer’s father, the conservative Viennese music critic Julius Korngold, who wrote the libretto under a pseudonym. Successful performances manage to alternate between Paul’s jittery dream world and his poignant longing for a time gone by.

Conductor Fritz Lehmann, an early advocate of historically informed performance practice, does well in the latter respect, taking care to bring out the sweetly melancholy quality of the opera’s most famous number, “Glück das mir verblieb,” and the lilt of the “Pierrot Lied” that briefly suspends action midway through the work. While one admires the balance and clarity, the reading doesn’t do justice to Korngold’s vivid orchestral colorations and is simply too foursquare for such unhinged, hallucinatory goings-on. The truncated edition for the performance merges Acts 1 and 2 and omits the Act 3 prelude.

Tenor Karl Friedrich, a Viennese favorite from the 1930s and 1940s sometimes compared to Richard Tauber, ably handles Paul’s punishing tessitura and manages to sound robust and unforced when the orchestration is thickest, even if he isn’t the most accomplished singing actor. As Marietta, soprano Maud Cunitz’s overtaxed upper register suggests a shrewish spouse more than a temptress and cuts through the middle act’s picnic scene like a migraine. The remainder of the cast features capable, if not especially memorable, contributions from Hans Braun as Fritz the Pierrot, Benno Kusche as Frank and Lilian Beningsen as Brigitta.

Myto’s minimalist packaging provides only the cast and track list, which won’t help first-time listeners or non-German speakers. The sound transfer is quite good, however, with a minimum of ambient noise and decent balance between the large orchestra and the stage. Though fans of the opera may find it an essential buy, the release is no threat to dislodge Erich Leinsdorf’s RCA release with Rene KolloCarol Neblett and Hermann Prey as the best option on disc.

Palestrina, from 1917, is a thicker nut to crack and is heard in a boxy-sounding 1955 Salzburg Festival performance on Walhall. Hans Pfitzner, an ardent nationalist and Nazi toady who still managed to get on the wrong side of Hitler, freely adapted the 16th century composer’s efforts to save polyphonic music into an opera with strong suggestions—right down to the running time—of Die Meistersinger and Parsifal.

The plot revolves around Palestrina’s search for faith after his wife’s death and his struggle to rise to the challenge of writing a Mass great enough to stop counter-Reformationists from dialing back church music to the Gregorian chant. The hesitant, unsure protagonist is jolted back to life by a visit from ghosts of nine great past composers, visions of his late wife and an angelic choir that dictates the Mass so he can finish it in a single night.

That just covers the 101-minute first act, which moves at times like a subway with locked brakes and gets bogged down in extended musings on the importance of tradition and whinging about Palestrina’s empty spirit. The air is thick with melancholy, sometimes obscuring artful pairings of music and text and an advanced use of leitmotives.

Things perk up in the final two acts, when the ecclesiastic council’s arguments over musical style degenerate into a deadly riot, the Mass proves a hit and Palestrina is vindicated and proclaimed a savior of civilization. The opera ends on a suitably fatalistic note, with the composer staring longingly at a portrait of his late wife, then turning to play his organ, resigned to whatever comes next.

Rudolf Kempe and the Vienna Philharmonic dig into the three orchestral preludes that comprise some of the opera’s most inspired music but plod for stretches elsewhere, unable to maintain long spans of tension or wring inspiration from the brief bursts of melody. It’s never less than a sympathetic reading that darts among the dozens of motifs and tastefully underscores quotations from Palestrina’s own music, as well as Bach and some of Pfitzner’s other works.

The heldentenor Max Lorenz’s robust, open-throated delivery had frayed some by the time of this performance, but his Palestrina strikes a balance between resignation and defiance, unwilling to let his art be used to boost the church’s power. His nemesis is bass baritone Paul Schöffler, one of the greatest Hans Sachs on record, who brings power and great textual clarity to Cardinal Borromeo, the composer’s mercurial and ultimately chastened patron.

Other A-listers sprinkled through the huge cast include the excellent bass baritone Ferdinand Frantz as the cardinal legate Giovanni Morone and bass Gottlob Frick as a sonorous Pope Pius IV. Soprano Elisabeth Söderström and mezzo Jean Madeira excel in the trouser roles of Ighino, Palestrina’s son, and Silla, his musically forward-looking pupil.

The Salzburg sound transfer is quite rough, with distracting tape hiss, a few dropouts and a lack of tonal depth that seems to magnify Pfitzner’s fondness for midrange orchestral voicing. As with the Die Tote Stadt releasethe single slip cast and track list will send listeners Googling for more source material to grasp this dialogue-driven work.

For a performance with such talent and commitment, one is struck by the way the drama just doesn’t live up to its lofty aspirations. Pfitzner’s focus on juxtaposing the solitary world of the artist with the brittle realm of politics—and on music’s transformative power—surely robbed his libretto of some needed character development. And Kempe and the singers’ careful respect for what was probably unfamiliar material accentuates the ascetic, suspended qualities of the music. It’s enough to give you the sense of looking at a bug in amber.

It’s hard to say whether that would have upset the composer.

  • Well here’s my Monday morning “wtf?” moment:

    “Repressed during the Nazi era, both [Korngold’s ‘Die Tote Stadt and Pfitzner’s ‘Palestrina’] re-emerged after World War II in German-speaking countries, where they were admired for their brainy sincerity and just maybe, some of the old-fangled overtones.”

    Fred Prieberg collected statistics on performances of Pfiztner operas during the early Nazi years. “Palestrina” was performed 121 times, slightly behind “Christelflein”, which scored 148 performances. When the German troops marched into Paris, they celebrated the occasion by mounting Pfitzner’s “Palestrina” and Egk’s “Peer Gynt” there. Pfitzner idolized Hitler. (Hitler was cautious, laboring under the mistaken belief that Pfitzner was helf Jewish -- but he made sure that the famous composer was bought off with enough money and recognition to keep him quiet.) It’s rather nauseating to see Pfitzner and Korngold placed side by side as fellow victims of the Nazis.

  • I agree that Pfitzner does not belong next to composers like Korngold (who was forced to flee his native Vienna) Ullmann (who died in Theresienstadt) and Schoenberg (who was dismissed from a teaching post in Berlin) as a “victim” of Nazi racial theories.

    If Hans Pfitzner’s music was “repressed” at all it was mostly because it is the work of a mediocre artist whose one notable opera (and yes that’s “Palestrina”) occasionally arises to moments of inspiration in the course of a four hour slog.

    Even the historically anachronistic depiction of the Council of Trent, which has only the most ethereal connection to the actual plot of the show) is a slog, with a great prelude that leads to pages and pages of indeterminable musical stodge. I have yet to hear this recording (I have the Kubelik set on DG) but the fault in this recording may not necessarily be that of Rudolf Kempe.

    Korngold on the other hand was a certified genius, a musical prodigy whose work while owing something to Mahler and Strauss, pushed opera in weird new expressionist directions while still staying in the bounds of tonality. If you like Die Tote Stadt I urge you to explore further, especially his completely neglected work Die Wunder das Heliane, which has gorgeous arias and a plot that manages to be both sillier and more obscure than Die Frau Ohne Schatten.

    • Oh, not to get all GCR on folks, but I would listen to Pfitzner over Korngold just about any day. Just not “Palestrina” -- there are people who admire that libretto, intelligent people even, but I am not one of them. The work of Pfitzner’s I most enjoy when wanting to indulge in #UeberTeutonicMelancholy is the unfortunately titled cantata, “Von Deutscher Seele”. It’s moody.

      Berg and the boys used to make great sport over Korngold and the protection of his Onkel Julius. I just find too many spots in his works meretricious. Give me Miklos Rozsa any day:

    • Henry Holland

      Well, you didn’t mention Hollywood or film scores, I’ll give you that. Erich co-wrote the libretto with his gargoyle father.

      I’m a big Korngold fan, I was lucky to hear a great performance of DTS at the City Opera with John Horton Murray, Lauren Flanigan and George Manahan conducting. Frank Corsaro’s production was showing its age --a video-centric staging could be done much better these days-- but very enjoyable.

      Yes, the Leinsdorf recording is fine (and complete) but Rene Kollo is a wobble-fest, they should have used John Alexander. For those that are interested, search out these performances:

      Vogt, Pavlovskaya; Weigle, Frankfurt 2009
      http://tinyurl.com/kz9zvg6

      Vogt is wonderful, unfortunately the cut at the end of Act I/start of Act II is taken. What a dumb cut! It mangles the great Act II prelude and means that the tenor doesn’t get a break after singing for most of Act I, all to save 4 minutes of music.

      Gould, Dussmann; Thielemann: Deustch Opera Berlin, 2004
      http://www.operapassion.com/cd6956.html

      A good pirate recording, Gould is incredible as Paul.

      Alexander, Neblett; Imre: New York City Opera, 1975
      http://www.operapassion.com/cd6963.html

      It’s an audience recording, the sound isn’t great, but it’s a great performance, one of the cornerstones of the Korngold revival.

      I love Das Wunder der Heliane, despite its flaws (a too long first act and a silly libretto). Here’s a good performance from Brno:

      Part 1:

      Part 2:

      I love his two one-acters as well, Violanta and Das Ring der Polykrates, Violanta would be perfect on a double bill with Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

      • stevey

        Agreed, Henry.

        And here’s the magnificent final scene from Korngold’s ‘Violanta’, composed when Korngold was just 17!! Siegfried Jerusalem and a thrilling Eva Marton, who unleashes some spectacular high notes (check out the one at 5:12…)

      • luvtennis

        And there are few guilty pleasures yummier than “Die Kathrin.”

        Get the CPO recording which features Melanie Diener and David Rendall. She is lovely and the music is a delicious confection of decadent goodness.

    • meowiaclawas

      Die Frau Ohne Schatten is not “silly”.

      • Henry Holland

        From the Wikipedia synopsis:

        The Nurse and Empress disappear, and the Wife is greatly upset by the offstage Voices of Unborn Children lamenting, which emerge from the fish that are cooking on the fire

        I’ve seen 3 productions DFOS, that bit never failed to elicit tittering in the audience. Plus, the last scene is so over the top bombastic and silly (I love it, of course) it makes anything Korngold wrote for DTS seem like Webern at his most note-stingy by comparison.

      • Yes it is. It’s also my absolute favorite opera.

        • Henry Holland

          I love it too, I loved the Hockney production that I saw at Los Angeles Opera.

  • armerjacquino

    But how does it compare to PELLEAS ET MELISANDE..?

    • manou

      Il ne faut pas réveiller le chat qui dort…

      • Camille

        I think this chat non dort mais il est scommunicato, like Santuzza. Se non mi sbaglio troppo.

        • manou

          Indeed -- he was un entrechat, but now he is a gatto non grato.

          • Camille

            ‘Il gatto non grato’ sounds like a fairytale! Mi piace!

            • Greg.Freed

              I oft refer to a certain feline as catus non gratus when she wakes me at unfortunate hours.

    • It’s louder, for one thing.

  • Camille

    Funny you should mention that, armerjacquino…I have been awaiting the punishment and wrath of Genevieve to smite Superconductor for his brave stand.