Pfitzner: Der arme Heinrich

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Capriccio
WORKS: Der arme Heinrich
PERFORMER: Norbert Schmittberg, William Killmeier, Sharon Markovich; Dortmund Theatre Chorus, Dortmund PO/Alexander Rumpf
Pfitzner was 24 when he composed Der arme Heinrich, the first of his five operas. Its atmosphere is distinctly Pre-Raphaelite and its musical language heavily indebted to Tristan and Parsifal. So, too, is the plot, with its bedridden, feverish Swabian knight, incurably ill, who can only be saved by the voluntary sacrifice of a virgin. Heinrich’s ultimate redemption is secured when he rebels against her fate and refuses to allow the gruesome removal of her living heart. Although its melodic ideas and overall sonority are pure Bayreuth, there are individual touches that take one by surprise, and a mastery of the orchestra that is impressive. The opening is particularly imaginative. But overall the opera is wanting in variety: the sonorities are dimly lit, the pace deliberate and ponderous, and despite its nobility, it is not difficult to see why it never established itself in the repertoire. Like the oratorio Von Deutsche Seele or even Palestrina, the invention does not sustain so large a canvas, and the result feels overlong. I am glad to have heard it but will not rush to replay it. The set, recorded live at the Dortmund Opera House in February 2000, is very well conducted, even if the soloists are not outstanding: indeed, Norbert Schmittberg as Heinrich shows distinct signs of strain. The overall sound has warmth though it is a bit opaque and bottom-heavy. Robert Layton