I would like to be able to welcome this new live recording of Pfitzner’s masterpiece from Frankfurt. The composer’s father was, after all, leader of the city’s Stadttheater orchestra and Pfitzner enjoyed many of his earliest musical experiences sitting beside him in the opera house pit.
Sadly, though, this is a disappointingly prosaic reading of one of music’s most poetic reflections on the mysteries of inspiration. More earthbound than ethereal, Kirill Petrenko’s Kapellmeisterish conducting entirely lacks either the jewel-like radiance and philosophical perspective of Robert Heger’s live 1951 performance, or the contrapuntal dexterity, architectural mastery and visionary impetus of Rafael Kubelik’s revelatory 1973 studio recording (both versions hailing from Munich, where Bruno Walter conducted the premiere in 1917).
Apart from mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke’s sympathetic Silla and bass-baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle’s eloquent Morone, the cast is undistinguished. The crucial apparition of the nine polyphonic masters is spoiled by ill-balanced recording of a badly blended ensemble. Above all, Peter Bronder is overstretched in the title role, and his tremulous timbre makes the great Palestrina sound merely peevish rather than oppressed by personal sorrow, existential angst and creative self-doubt. He can’t compete with the entranced spirituality of Julius Patzak (Munich, 1951), the transcendent purity of Fritz Wunderlich (Vienna, 1964) or the burnished sheen and sheer presence of Nicolai Gedda on the superbly well-cast Kubelik recording, which, now at super-bargain price on Brilliant Classics, remains a clear first choice.