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Salopian

Classical Club #18 - Pfitzner: "Palestrina" preludes

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Rather than recommend a 3-CD set, I thought it wiser to suggest a taster of what I consider the most overlooked masterpiece of German opera.

Pfitzner is one of those "one work" composers. He wrote lots of music, yes... but really only found his genius once, in his opera Palestrina. Premiered in 1917, it is heard reasonably often in the German-speaking world, but had to wait until 1987 for its UK professional premiere. In three acts, with a fine libretto by the composer, it tells the story of the Italian Renaissance composer Palestrina and how, according to legend, he saved polyphonic music. He is famous, but has been unable to produce music since the death of his wife. When visited by the other main protagonist, Cardinal Borromeo, and charged to create a work to convince the Council of Trent not to dispense with polyphony, he feels quite unable to rise to the challenge. Borromeo leaves angrily... and then inspiration comes to Palestrina in the ghostly forms of past Masters and Lucrezia, his wife. A chorus of angels appears and sings the music which he feverishly creates in the course of a single night.

Act 2 is a series of incidents and tableaus depicting the Council of Trent, its factions and intrigues, the clerics and other dignitaries, grandiose, exotic and venal, who are there for various reasons of their own - at least one mainly for the expenses. It may not sound like terribly operatic subject matter, but the stage is filled with wonderful characters and the music portrays each of them in turn quite beautifully.

Palestrina is completely absent from Act 2, but reappears in Act 3, which briefly tells how Pope Marcellus, convinced by the new Mass, has decreed that polyphony will not be abolished. Palestrina is a not a flamboyant person. He settles for quiet satisfaction, but his pupils and choir are overjoyed.

The opera is mainly for male voices (one of the reasons it appeals to me - I'm a bit allergic to operatic sopranos); it has no major love story, no murders or crimes. It is unconventional, but not unique: Hindemith's Mathis der Maler of 1935 is another artist-as-protagonist story, and Busoni's Doktor Faust of 1925 might be considered a distant relative.

If you want to hear the whole opera I recommend the Kubelik recording, which has a superb cast and (just as importantly in this of all operas) seems to me the best conducted. You need to have the libretto - following the action and the characters' motivations, so well depicted, is what makes this work so compelling.

However, this post is a pointer to the three Preludes, which give summaries of the sound worlds of the three Acts - the second very different to the other two - and contain many of the magnificent tunes, superbly orchestrated, with which the opera is filled. Thielemann and the orchestra of the Berlin Opera do a good job.

There is other interesting music on the disc... but it is Palestrina to which I want to draw your attention, so I won't discuss those pieces here. I am not an opera buff, but have loved Palestrina since I first heard it nearly 30 years ago.

album cover.jpg

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Ah, having clicked on it I now understand that the above is a link to a Spotify stream. I'm fairly new to streaming and have only ever used Qobuz - which does have both the Thielemann collection and the Kubelik recording of the complete opera.

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On 30/05/2018 at 17:57, Salopian said:

Ah, having clicked on it I now understand that the above is a link to a Spotify stream

Yeah I should have mentioned your choice needs to be on Spotify and link posted so people can listen free.

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