Friday, 4 October 2013

Pfitzner - Palestrina

Hans Pfitzner - Palestrina

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2009

Simone Young, Christian Stückl, Christopher Ventris, Peter Rose, Michael Volle, John Daszak, Roland Bracht, Falk Struckmann, Christiane Karg, Stephen Humes, Kenneth Robertson, Christian Rieger, Wolfgang Köch, Ulrich Reß, Kevin Conners, Alfred Kuhn, Claudia Mahnke

EuroArts - Blu-ray

Although its setting is in the sixteenth century, Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina is a work that is very much defined by the time of its own creation. It's consequently something of a curiosity in that it celebrates the spirit of creativity and progression of music as an artform through one of its earliest innovators, yet in many ways its a very conservative work that attempts to preserve the turn-of the 20th century post-Wagernian Romantic style in the face of the threat of what Pfitzner saw as the decadent experiments of Schoenberg, Strauss (in Salome and Elektra), Berg and Hindemith. Time and history haven't been kind then to Pfitzner with his legacy being associated with Nazi sympathising and anti-semitism, but the scale and force of the work itself - a grand epic that seems to attempt to steamroller over and crush all dissenting voices - is impressive nonetheless.

Impressive perhaps, beautifully orchestrated and quite unlike anything else out there (with the exception perhaps of some thematic connections with Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), but Palestrina could also be considered rather long-winded, dramatically limited and somewhat esoteric in its subject matter. It's set in 1563, around the time that the Council of Trent is being brought to a conclusion in Rome, where archbishops and cardinals from all around the world have been gathered together to hammer out the finer details of reform of the Catholic Church. One of the many important questions to be considered is the nature of the music to be used in Masses and whether it should adhere to the Gregorian model or embrace polyphony.

It may not seem like an important matter, but the patronage of the Church was undoubtedly important in the commissioning of new music in these early years, and it would exert great influence over its form and construction. In Pfitzner's opera, the charge of this matter has been given over to Cardinal Borromeo, who is convinced that the composer Pierluigi Palestrina, currently the Choirmaster at the Santa Maria Maggiore, is capable of providing the kind of polyphonic Mass music that Pope Pius IV hopes will win over the Council and "give meaning to the age". Palestrina however has long been out of favour since he married and thereby lost the papal patronage, but he's also a broken man who hasn't been able to write a note of music since the death of his wife. Inspired by past masters and angels, Palestrina composes his Mass in a single feverish night.

Much of what Pfitzner has to say about the nature of music, creativity, inspiration and composition (he also wrote the libretto for the opera himself) is all there in Palestrina's remarkable first Act. Through contrasting Palestrina with Silla, a pupil of the old composer who wants to go to Florence to write "experimental" music, Pfitzner considers the nature of the composer as an artist who stands above the people and follows his own muse, or as one who writes music for the public, for the people, for it to contribute to and be part of "the universal whole". Aside from academic matters, the weight of history and divine inspiration, Pfitzner is also content to fictionalise elements of Palestrina's life (his wife had not died at the time of the composition of his Mass for the Council of Trent in 1563), in order to consider the question of the human input and the heavy burdens of the composer.

All the marvel of the work, its intent and brilliance of expression, is there in this first Act which culminates with the marvellous ensemble of the Past Masters and choirs of angels that drive and herald the composition of a masterpiece, and it's brought spectacularly to life in this rare 2009 production of the work at the Nationaltheater in Munich by the Bavarian State Opera. Pfitzner was a Munich composer and it's apparent that no-one knows better how to deal with the complexity, contradictions, controversy and conservatism of Pfitzner than the Bayerische Staatsoper. With roots in the theatre and in the Passion plays at Oberammergau rather than in opera, Christian Stückl is a bit of a gamble as a director, but he finds some marvellous ways to illustrate and illuminates the work without straying too far into either literalism or symbolism.

The stage looks highly stylised though the bold use of bright, striking, almost luminous colours - black and white, cardinal pink and angel green - but in reality it's a relatively simple reflection and representation of the subject on an earthly level as well as on a spiritual level. With such bold simple statements, it makes the dramatic monotony of Act II's nit-picking disputes and rivalries between the cardinals and archbishops still look staggeringly impressive simply through the sheer population of the stage by the singers in these fine, bright costumes, and, of course, through the force of the singing and the writing for a cast of almost entirely male Wagnerian singers. The third Act, where Palestrina's music is accepted and praised, ensuring his release from prison, would be almost anti-climatic after all this were the use of colours and lighting not likewise complementary to the work.

In terms of performance, Simone Young's conducting of the orchestra might not have the grand Romantic sweep that the music of Palestrina calls for, but there's a recognition of the human character in the music here with its sorrowful undercurrents, and it's brought out well with good attention to individual instruments and expression. The large cast assembled here contain some of the best German Wagner and Strauss singers around at the moment - Christopher Ventris and Michael Volle in particular standing out in the demanding roles of Palestrina and Morone - all of them combining that necessary heft with lyrical beauty with all the necessary stamina required. Falk Struckmann is also notable for his Borromeo and Christiane Karg is impressive in range and lyrical expression as Palestrina's son Ighino.

Palestrina may not be the be-all-and-end-all that Pfitzner aspired it to be - other than perhaps inadvertently turning out to be one of the final words on a dying operatic legacy left by Wagner - but it's a fascinating and extraordinary work nonetheless, particularly in this fine production. It's looks every bit as impressive as it should in the Blu-ray's HD transfer and it sounds marvellous also in the high-resolution PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 audio tracks. The Blu-ray also includes a 10-minute 'Making of', which consists of interviews and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage.