Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Hans Pfitzner, 1910
Hans Pfitzner in 1910, six years before he completed “Palestrina”, one of the most beautiful and profound operas ever written.
Bruno Walter conducted the first performance of “Palestrina” in 1917. Forty-five years later, on the day before his death, Walter wrote a letter recalling the circumstances of that mid-war premiere (in Munich)—and predicting immortality for the work.
Despite its overwhelming beauties, “Palestrina” is not often performed, in large part because of its massive production requirements. A very large cast of major voices is called for, the orchestral writing is dense and complex, and the necessary choral preparation eats up weeks of rehearsal time.
For decades, music-lovers have been known to cross oceans in order to attend a performance of “Palestrina”.
A very odd man, Pfitzner taught many notable musicians, among them composers Ture Rangström (whose neglected symphonies I rather like) and Carl Orff and conductors Otto Klemperer and Charles Munch.
Pfitzner is too progressive—and not simply the way Korngold can be taken to be. He is also too conservative, if that means to be influenced by someone like Schoenberg. All this has audible consequences: we cannot find the brokenness of today in his work at first glance, any more than we can we find the unbroken of yesterday. We find both; that is, we find none. All attempts at classification fail.
We have been listening to Pfitzner’s Violin Concerto and Rihm’s Time Chant (and Busoni’s Violin Concerto, too), all great concertante works for violin and orchestra.