PFITZNER: Von deutscher Seele.
Solveig Kringelborn (soprano); Nathalie Stutzmann (mezzo); Christopher Ventris (tenor); Robert Holl (bass); Rundfunkchor Berlin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Ingo Metzmacher.
Phoenix Edition 145 () (DDD) TT: 95:08 (2 CDs)

Darkness in the woods. Normally, I have little difficulty separating an artist from his art. Wagner? No problem. Meistersinger, for me as good as opera gets, sings more wisely than its composer knew. Hans Pfitzner, on the other hand, bothers me no end. Not to mince words, an anti-Semitic, Fascist s.o.b, he hero-worshipped Hitler from the Twenties on (although he never officially joined the Nazi party). In fact, he so idolized der Führer that he creeped out even Hitler. Pfitzner's anti-Semitic rants earned him the nickname "the Rabbi" from Hitler himself, who suspected that the composer protested a bit too much. Yet, like Wagner, Pfitzner was not above using great Jewish musicians to present his works, like the white mobsters who owned the Cotton Club and wouldn't allow blacks in the audience.

The large cantata Von deutscher Seele ("of the German soul") comes from 1921 and sets text by the great religious and nature poet Eichendorff, one of the inspirational genii of German Romanticism. If you know Pfitzner's history, the title alone may warn you off, but in fact there's no overt nationalism in the piece at all. The texts don't even mention the word "German." Curiously, the title comes from a Jewish writer, Ludwig Jacobowski, who used it to name his collection of German folk songs. By his selection of poems, Pfitzner apparently wants to express or define German sensibility. The poems concentrate on the power of night and dreams, the solitude and powerlessness of each man, the mercy of God. I've no idea what a psychologist would make of all this, especially since Pfitzner wrote it in the wake of Germany's defeat in the Great War. However, this concatenation of ideas, in the light of subsequent history, quivers for me like a snake under the leaves.

Still, the test of a score lies in its hearing. I wish I could tell you it was awful, so that my moral universe would keep its balance. However, this is a gorgeous work, undeservedly neglected. I gave in to the luxury of loving it. The work divides into two large parts: "Mensch und Natur" (man and nature) and "Leben und Singen" (living and singing). To me, the first part may be one of the finest chorus-and-orchestra extravaganzas ever, almost at the level of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Pfitzner railed against Modernism (especially Busoni) as early as 1917, but he certainly took a lot from its salad days. You don't have to listen all that carefully to suss out the Mahler and early Schoenberg in it -- its turns of melody, its harmonies, its orchestration. For me the highpoints lie in the instrumental sections: "Tod als Postillion" (death as coachman), a wild ride; "Abend" and "Nacht," two very poetic nocturnes. The actual word-setting strikes me as pretty weak, as if tacked on to the notes. Brahms and Mahler would have done better. However, Pfitzner's music more than carries you through. Of real power is a highly original chorale (comparable to the finale of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony) that appears toward the end of the first part.

If Pfitzner had ended his cantata with Part I, I think he would have had the stronger work. Part II never returns to the peaks already established. Nevertheless, one still finds moments of interest, especially the "Instrumental Prelude," very similar in its propelling rhythms to Pfitzner's bête noir, Busoni. Close your eyes, and you can hear the ancestor of the opening to Weill's Mahagonny.
The performance is a good one, although you can imagine a better one. The soloists do okay, without anybody standing out. I liked bass Robert Holl the best. The orchestra does better than the choir, but the choir has the harder job, trying to make sense of Pfitzner's rather cavalier approach to musical declamation. Nevertheless, recommended to fans of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.

S.G.S. (February 2009)