Notes and Editorial Reviews
Kirill Petrenko, cond; Peter Bonder (
); Britta Stallmeister (
); Claudia Mahnke (
); Wolfgang Koch (
); Johannes Martin Kränzle (
); Frankfurt Op O & Ch
OEHMS OC 930 (3 CDs: 190: 00
Text and Translation) Live: Frankfurt 6/2010
is the quintessential opera that will not travel. Virtually unheard beyond German-speaking central Europe (the Met has never performed it), it is regarded as a sublime masterpiece in Munich and Vienna. It is filled with glorious, long-lined music, and Pfitzner’s own libretto builds a gripping tale from a 19th-century fable of Palestrina’s saving Western music. We in America must resort to recordings, most of which have been ancient ones, attempting to capture ideal live performances of the title role by Julius Patzak (1951 and 1952) or Fritz Wunderlich (1964) and of Cardinal Borromeo by Hans Hotter (1951, 1952). More recent live performances (Otmar Suitner on Berlin Classics, Joseph Keilberth on Orfeo) have been only moderately successful. The staging of the only video recording, conducted by Simone Young, was damned as a “fourth-rate effort” by Barry Brenesal in
34:3. The lone studio recording, led by Rafael Kubelík, is now 40 years old. Packed with stars, including just about every major German singer of the era, it is marred by a poorly cast lead, Nicolai Gedda as Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina.
This is an opera about powerful old men (the only female characters are a ghost and three angels); yet the first male voice enters after 27 minutes, during which a soprano and a mezzo lay the groundwork for us: Palestrina, the most revered composer of the 16th century, was rejected by the Pope for marrying and is now so distraught by his wife’s death that he is unable to compose. As Ighino, Palestrina’s 15-year-old son, Kubelík’s Helen Donath sings magnificently; Britta Stallmeister cannot match her, but she is convincing as a distressed young boy, as is Claudia Mahnke in the role of Silla, Palestrina’s teenage pupil.
The arrival of Palestrina and his friend Cardinal Borromeo brings us to the nub of this performance. Unfortunately, neither singer is in a class with the past champions of their roles. Both manage the notes well enough but fail to create strong characters. Borromeo’s rising anger at his friend’s resistance to his ideas is apparent, but Wolfgang Koch cannot match the dramatic impact of Kubelík’s Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (even though the latter has to shout to achieve it). Palestrina’s inability to compose (or to sooth his erstwhile friend’s anger) should gain our sympathy, but here he appears merely a dull, unmotivated fellow. Once left alone, Palestrina’s quiet musings are handled effectively, but Peter Bonder’s tenor lacks color at levels above
. The scenes with the old masters and then the angels—the crux of the opera—do not rise to their expected magic, despite some lovely voices among the angels. The Frankfurt orchestra lacks both the subtlety and the power of Kubelík’s Bavarian Radio Orchestra. Which is a shame, as the recorded sound in Frankfurt is gorgeous, making Deutsche Grammophon’s fine analog stereo (and all the older recordings) sound one-dimensional by comparison.
The act II Prelude lacks dramatic power. The confusion of male voices at the Council of Trent is always a problem on recordings, ameliorated in Kubelík’s case by the familiar, recognizable tones of Hermann Prey, Bernd Weikl, Karl Riddersbusch, and others. The as-yet less-well-known members of the Frankfurt cast, aided by the fine recorded sound, do manage to keep most of their words intelligible. “A Young Doctor” (of theology) is sung by a countertenor. The brief, exotic episodes of Abdisu, the Patriarch of Assyria—moments of Mussorgsky in the middle of
—are marvelous, the Frankfurt woodwinds overflowing with color. Disc 3 opens with the Cardinal Morrone, the Pope’s legatee, addressing the council. Johannes Martin Kränzle (the magazine
’s 2011 Singer of the Year) is magnificent in the role, and for 10 minutes this becomes the perfect
. At this point, the entire performance catches fire and remains on a high level to the conclusion of act II.
Palestrina’s early lines in act III are hardly more than parlando, and Bonder is comfortable with them. Unfortunately, Ighino’s long aria is disturbed by pitch problems and a wobble that the soprano seems to have developed since the first act—although the recording is taken from more than one performance (we are not told how many). The role of Pope Pius IV is like that of the Commendatore in
: The moment calls for a great voice, but the role is only two minutes long, so it is seldom assigned to the strongest bass in the cast. It should be. Gottlob Frick and Karl Riddersbusch have appeared in previous recordings; Alfred Reiter does well with it. The final scene, the reconciliation of the now contrite Borromeo with Palestrina, remains rather ordinary, as neither singer rises to the heights.
With Brenesal’s scathing review of a DVD production in mind, perhaps it is fortunate that this is an audio-only recording: Photos of the Frankfurt production show it to be in modern dress, Palestina in shirtsleeves and suspenders, the cardinals in uniforms reminiscent of North Korean politicians—only a red scarf suggests Borromeo’s exalted rank. One photo appears to show the tiled wall of a public toilet, and is that the Pope in a grey Nehru-jacket? The first break comes at the same awkward moment as in the DG set, for which there is no decent solution among the 94 minutes of act I. The 160-page booklet is most generous, with side-by-side German and English text, plus bios and photos of every soloist—19 of them.
I fear the
conundrum will never be solved: If you don’t care ardently for this opera, you won’t want any recording; if you do, you will want them all, including this one, for Kränzle’s Morone and for its gorgeous sound.
FANFARE: James H. North
Works on This Recording
Palestrina by Hans Pfitzner
Richard Cox (Tenor),
Frank van Aken (Tenor),
Johannes Martin Kränzle (Baritone),
Claudia Mahnke (Mezzo Soprano),
Wolfgang Koch (Baritone),
Britta Stallmeister (Soprano),
Peter Bronder (Tenor),
Alfred Reiter (Bass),
Magnus Baldvinsson (Bass),
Hans-Jürgen Lazar (Tenor)
Frankfurt Opera House and Museum Orchestra,
Frankfurt Opera Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1912-1915; Germany
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