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8.223162 - PFITZNER: Piano Concerto / Das Christelflein Overture
Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949)
Hans Pfitzner was born in Moscow in 1869, the son of a violinist from Saxony, Robert Pfitzner, who was later to return to Germany as music director of the Stadttheater in Frankfurt. His musical training was at the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory under lwan Knorr, a pupil of Moscheles, Richter and Reinecke, and the pianist James Kwast, whose daughter Mimi he married in 1899. He began his professional career as teacher at the Conservatory in Coblenz and in 1897 was appointed to the staff of the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, where, in 1903, he became First Kapellmeister at the Theater des Westens. Five years later he moved to Strasbourg as director of the conservatory and conductor of the symphony orchestra. In 1910 he added to this the position of director of the opera, winning a reputation there and elsewhere with his opera Palestrina, first staged in Munich in 1917. After the war, Pfitzner, his position in German music firmly established, held composition master classes at the Prussian Academy in Berlin and in 1925 was appointed a life member of the Munich Academy of Music, an honour terminated by the National Socialist government in 1934. He continued to work as a conductor and an accompanist, and to write music, in spite of deteriorating health and the final poverty of his last years in an old people’s home in Munich. He died in 1949, leaving unfinished a Cantata setting of Goethe’s Urworte Orphisch for soloists, chorus and orchestra.
At the height of his fame Pfitzner held a position in popular German esteem that rivalled that of Richard Strauss. In particular the opera Palestrina, which is concerned with the integrity and inspiration of the artist, as reflected in the story of Palestrina’s composition of the Missa Papae Marcelli, a work that served to persuade the Council of Trent to permit the continued use of polyphony in Catholic worship, made a profound impression and in spite of its complexity remains in German repertoire. The subject and its operatic treatment had a precedent in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and a successor in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, banned by the National Socialists in 1933.
Pfitzner’s essential espousal of a specifically German musical tradition, conservative and looking back to an age that had passed, and his approval of more notorious aspects of Wagner’s polemical writing, has not helped his general reputation abroad. At one time close enough in his thought to Thomas Mann, who was influenced by the composer in his novel The Magic Mountain, with its sympathy with death, he was to diverge markedly from him during the years of the Weimar Republic, when Mann became a champion of democracy, the subject of satirical treatment in the second act of Palestrina. To this one might add the judgement of a distinguished Jewish exile from Vienna, who was to describe Pfitzner as “a quirky, quarrelsome little man” always highly critical of the music of his fellow composers.
Pfitzner’s Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Opus 31, was completed in1922 and given its first performance in Dresden on 16th March, 1923, by the pianist Walter Gieseking, under the direction of Fritz Busch. Gieseking gave the first performance in Berlin one and a half years later, when the conductor was Wilhelm Furtwängler, and retained the work in his repertoire, earning the gratitude of the composer, expressed in the dedication of the Five Piano Pieces, Opus 47, in 1941.
The first of the four movements contrasts the principal E-flat theme, marked “pomphaft, mit Kraft und Schwung”, with the slower expressive B-flat minor secondary theme, leading to a central development in which the rhapsodic solo part is contrasted with the ceremonial march of the orchestra. The cheerful second movement has something of the spirit of the Scherzo of the G minor Concerto of Saint-Saëns. There is a meditatively ecstatic slow movement, followed by the robust humour of the finale, with its cadenza in the form of a fugue, a further contrast between the homophonic and polyphonic in a concerto rich in contrast.
The music drama Das Herz, using a libretto written by the composer and his pupil Hans Mahner-Mons, was completed in 1931 and staged in that year in Munich and in Berlin. Neither here, nor in his early Spieloper Das Christelflein, with a libretto by Ilse von Stach, staged in Munich in 1906 and revised in 1917, did Pfitzner achieve any lasting success, although one may recall the judgement of the English scholar Edward Dent on the opera Palestrina, which he described as dreadfully tedious but with much in it that is wonderfully beautiful.
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