Pfitzner: Palestrina

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Pfitzner
LABELS: Berlin Classics
WORKS: Palestrina
PERFORMER: Peter Schreier, Siegfried Lorenz, Ekkehard Wlaschiha, Fritz HübnerStaatskapelle & Staatsoper Chorus, Berlin/Otmar Suitner
CATALOGUE NO: 0310 001 DDD (distr. Koch) Reissue
Like his contemporary, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hans Pfitzner’s relationship to the Nazis was, to say the least, ambivalent. While never an active party member, his upholding of traditional German artistic values was enough in some eyes to brand him as a Nazi sympathiser, if not outright supporter, and this, coupled with his somewhat austere brand of post-Wagnerian musical Romanticism (at least in comparison with the glitzier confections of Richard Strauss), led to his marginalisation both in the history books and in the hearts and minds of music lovers. It’s hardly surprising that he identified strongly with Palestrina, or at least the mythical Palestrina who at the last minute rescued polyphony for the Catholic church, thereby affirming the value of high art over the superficial, trite and merely functional.

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These adjectives are certainly inappropriate when describing this deeply serious and intensely moving opera. Its didactic nature is plain, and if the music, particularly during the long first act, tends to veer towards the devotional (sometimes even dull) rather than the galvanisingly dramatic, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. Peter Schreier’s finely nuanced Palestrina surpasses even that of Nicolai Gedda on the rival DG recording, tipping the balance in the newcomer’s favour. Antony Bye