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David Shengold
Opera News, July 2009

A retrospectively unfortunate title, coupled with the retrograde politics of composer Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949), doubtless keeps the “Romantic Cantata” Von Deutscher Seele (From the German Soul) from wider repertory currency. This is a pity, as the beautifully orchestrated, often stirring late-Romantic score well merits investigation by those who appreciate Mahler, Richard Strauss and Zemlinsky. Given the nationalistic title, one (correctly) anticipates touches evoking Bruckner and—signally—J.S. Bach; but parts of this diversely accented work make plain that Pfitzner was well acquainted with, among others, Bizet and Debussy. For those few who have a fixed image of Pfitzner’s music, Von Deutscher Seele (his Op. 28, given its premiere in 1922) should alter it; for many it should prove a worthwhile discovery.

There’s nothing nationalistic or indeed Germany-specific about the texts by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857), whose verse Strauss set in the Vier Letzte Lieder’s “Im Abendrot.” His High Romantic musings on human endeavor in the face of mortality, grouped by the composer, form a cumulative existential meditation. The work has two major divisions, designated Mensch und Natur (Man and Nature) and Leben und Singen (Life and Singing), of which the second half is entitled Liederteil (Song Part). Thus Pfitzner uses the tripartite oratorio structure passed down from Handel and Haydn. In all there are nineteen sung sections, with five orchestral segments providing some of the most formally interesting music, here totaling approximately twenty-eight minutes out of ninety-five. Leben und Singen’s somber overture yields to a choral lament, both underpinned by steady drumbeats, recalling Berlioz’s threnody before Didon’s suicide. The four vocal soloists sometimes tackle textual portions jointly or in alternation—in the manner of Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied—occasionally fielding segments solo.

Ingo Metzmacher’s incisively paced new issue displays orchestral quality and clarity. The set sports four distinguished names—Solveig Kringelborn, Nathalie Stutzmann, Christopher Ventris and Robert Holl. Unfortunately, all save for the fine British tenor were slightly past their vocal best by this live taping in Berlin in early October 2007, though each soloist offers some fine moments, retaining positive musical and interpretive qualities, that—given Phoenix’s excellent sonics—make this set a plausible choice despite competition from earlier issues featuring the likes of Fritz Wunderlich and Hans Hotter. Holl’s cultivated bass-baritone sometimes sounds more nasal and dry than Hotter at his most afflicted. He also wobbles, though less than Stutzmann, whose “complicated” metallic timbre sounds somewhat out of place in this lush Teutonic idiom. Starting the work off weakly, she opens up more satisfyingly in its second part. Kringelborn retains the tonal shine that marked her earliest Met work: but, with her, too, steadiness and accuracy in attack are not always givens, and several high notes are distinctly shrieky. Ventris, while no Wunderlich in terms of timbre, phrases his lines sensitively and copes manfully with a tessitura often one or two notes too high for his comfort. Choral work is assured and sonorous.

Paul L Althouse
American Record Guide, March 2009

One’s response to this piece will depend on the ability to set aside several of its external aspects. Pfitzner was an unrepentant German nationalist and anti-Semite in the Nazi period, so we would suspect the worse in a cantata called Von Deutscher Seele (Of the German Soul). Why would anyone want to revisit the world of Nazi propaganda? The piece, though, is nothing of that sort. The text is entirely from Eichendorff, a favorite of composers like Schumann, and the notes remind us that the word “German” is nowhere mentioned. The composition itself dates from 1921, well before the Nazis came to power. So, while we may well have little regard for Pfitzner personally, we might not want to sweep this piece away. Nonetheless, it arouses controversy even today. The notes tell us of a heated public debate when it was performed on the “Day of German Unity” in 2007.

The work is in two halves: Man and Nature and Life and Singing. There are no characters, no plot—just musings: Wanderer’s sayings, spiritual poems, and romances (songs). The musical style is decidedly conservative, with suggestions of composers like Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, and early Schoenberg (Gurrelieder). At the same time it is wonderful music—particularly the orchestral interludes that separate the cantata numbers and take up perhaps half the whole piece. The vocal material is spread fairly evenly among the four soloists and the choir, and all except perhaps Kringelborn are first rate. Metzmacher gets lovely playing and atmosphere from his orchestra in this concert performance.

Recordings of this piece go back to Clemens Krauss in 1945; the most recent was Martin Sieghart’s in 1999. I haven’t heard any of them, but it is hard to imagine the piece getting stronger advocacy than here. The poetry is moving, the music is imaginatively orchestrated and gorgeous, and the sonics are terrific. My chief criticism is that the text lacks confrontation and the music is too consistently meditative in spirit. But let me repeat myself: this is gorgeous music, late romanticism without the neuroticism and the nightmares! Reread the first sentence and decide for yourself if you want to give this a try.

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