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Hyperion Records

CDA67906 - Pfitzner: Cello Concertos
CDA67906
Recording details: June 2012
Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, Germany
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon & Dave Rowell
Release date: March 2014
Total duration: 67 minutes 28 seconds

'The earliest and most fascinating composition here, a cello concerto dating from 1889 when Pfitzner was a 19-year-old student, starts like a pious exercise in Schumannesque rumination but takes in startling and richly orchestrated outbursts evoking Wagner’s Venusberg … When he returned to the cello concerto genre in 1935 it was with music of unusual concision, making his typically unsettling mixture of restraint and flamboyance even more effective than usual … The Hyperion team provide a characterful recording, close to the music’s generally expansive sonorities without obscuring its many distinctive details. Alban Gerhardt is an unfailingly charismatic soloist, finding a sense of purpose where others might lapse into aimlessness, and the orchestral support is first-rate' (Gramophone) » More

'The three Cello Concertos … reveal a warmer, more human side to Pfitzner’s character. It’s evident not least in the late A minor Concerto (1943). In this piece, the 74-year-old composer, ill, bereaved and bombed-out, nostalgically recalled the rhapsodic A minor Concerto that he’d written as a student 53 years earlier and believed lost (it was rediscovered in 1975), while basing the slow movement on a 1923 song beginning ‘My end is drawing nigh’. Like the concise, single-span G major Concerto (1935), its rapturous cantilena all organically derived from its opening cello theme, the late A minor offers a sometimes bizarre mix of the lyrical and the whimsical. Gerhardt holds it all together with his sustained singing lines, while Weigle and his Berlin band provide vividly pointillist backing (BBC Music Magazine) » More
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

'Gerhardt und das Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin unter Sebastian Weigle haben zu einer in sich durchaus stimmigen Interpretation gefunden … ein echter Hinhörer ist das Duo op. 43 für Violine, Cello und kleines Orchester … diese ist wirklich gut geglückt … das passt zu dem schwärmerischen, fantasievollen und weit ausgesponnenen Dialog, der streckenweise an ein Liebesduett erinnert' (NDR, Germany)

The Romantic Cello Concerto
Cello Concertos
Ruhig  [7'37]
Nicht zu schnell  [3'00]
Feierlich  [2'49]
Allegretto  [4'33]
A tempo –  [1'51]
Moderato –  [1'50]
Ganze Takte  [4'23]

Hyperion’s Romantic Cello Concerto series continues to bring new works into a repertoire currently dominated by Dvořák and Elgar. Alban Gerhardt performs the three concertos by Hans Pfitzner, a composer remembered most for his opera Palestrina.

Pfitzner’s early Cello Concerto in A minor, Op posth., was scorned by his teachers (although liked by the composer himself) and the manuscript disappeared during his lifetime. It was first performed in public on 18 February 1977 and published the following year. His Cello Concerto in G major, Op 42, was written almost half a century later. Completed in 1935, this richly melodic single span was composed for the cellist Gaspar Cassadó (1897–1966), one of the finest cellists of his generation. This beautifully constructed concerto derives its material from the lyrical cello solo (heard over a quiet timpani roll) at the very start of the work. The orchestration is deft and often delicate, never submerging the solo instrument, but full of attractive surprises, not least the tumbling trumpet fanfares that introduce the first of the faster sections. The Cello Concerto in A minor, Op 52, is dedicated to Ludwig Hoelscher (1907–1996), a pupil of two giants of German cello-playing: Hugo Becker and Julius Klengel. It was completed in 1943 and published in 1944. Also included is a Duo for violin, cello and small orchestra.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It’s an amusing quirk of history that Hans Pfitzner, one of the most ardently nationalistic German composers of his generation, was born in Moscow, on 5 May 1869. His father Robert was working there as a violinist in a theatre orchestra, though the family returned to Frankfurt am Main in 1872, and this is the city Pfitzner always considered to be his home town. Robert Pfitzner took up a position as leader (concert master) of the orchestra in the Stadttheater.

As a student at the Hoch Konservatorium in Frankfurt, the young Pfitzner studied piano with James Kwast (also the teacher of Otto Klemperer and Percy Grainger) and composition with Iwan Knorr, whose pupils included not only several other German composers (Walter Braunfels, Ernst Toch, Oskar Fried), but also the so-called Frankfurt School of British composers (among them Roger Quilter, Cyril Scott, Balfour Gardiner and Norman O’Neill), and the Geneva-born Ernest Bloch. Soon after graduating in 1890, Pfitzner volunteered—along with his classmate Carl Friedberg—to copy out the orchestral parts for the latest work by another composition teacher at the Hoch Konservatorium: Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, first performed in Weimar on 23 December 1893, conducted by Richard Strauss. This work left a lasting mark on Pfitzner whose own Das Christ-Elflein (first version, 1906; revised version, 1917) owes a good deal to the magical world of Humperdinck’s score. It’s as an operatic composer that Pfitzner is best remembered, above all through Palestrina (originally subtitled a ‘Musical Legend’), first performed by the Munich Opera at the city’s Prinzregententheater under Bruno Walter in 1917. It is this work that has kept Pfitzner’s name in the repertoire, especially in German-speaking countries. He had an increasingly difficult relationship with Bruno Walter during the Nazi years, but in what turned out to be his last letter (16 February 1962—the day before he died), Walter wrote to Pfitzner’s widow Mali declaring that: ‘Despite all the grim events of our times, I’m confident that Palestrina will “endure”. The work has all the elements of imperishability.’

Walter’s reference to ‘grim events’ is an uncomfortable but essential reminder of Pfitzner’s beliefs and his nationalist politics. In 1923 Pfitzner was in hospital in Munich for a gall bladder operation and one of his visitors was Adolf Hitler. It did nothing for Pfitzner’s short-term career aspirations—but ultimately helped to salvage something of his reputation—that he unwittingly enraged Hitler at this meeting and that Hitler didn’t care for his music either. Michael Kater (in The Twisted Muse) has written that afterwards Hitler told his companion, the poet Dieter Eckart, that he ‘did not want anything to do with this old rabbi—evidently mistaking the bearded Pfitzner for a Jew’.

Poor Pfitzner: on the one hand he shared, or at least sympathized with, many of the beliefs of the Nazis (and the term ‘old rabbi’ was subsequently used by some of his detractors with the bitterest irony); on the other, Hitler himself—despite constant correction by Goebbels and others—remained convinced that Pfitzner was partly Jewish. The composer thought their brief encounter in 1923 had been quite successful, so he was devasted to have an invitation to conduct the music for the 1934 Nuremberg Rally withdrawn, on the grounds that Hitler was convinced that Pfitzner had Jewish blood. On numerous occasions Pfitzner invited Hitler to his concerts but was constantly rebuffed, or he was thwarted in attempts to fix face-to-face meetings. Having been branded a Jew, Pfitzner did his utmost to enthuse in public pronouncements about the Führer: ‘Today there is no one besides him with the strength of body, spirit and soul, this man whom we have known as our German Führer for the last ten years.’ But even this kind of flattery was to no avail in terms of helping Pfitzner’s ambition to become a highly regarded house composer to the Third Reich (unsurprisingly, Pfitzner’s simmering jealousy of Richard Strauss became obsessive; one Pfitzner biographer and supporter even described Strauss as the devil incarnate): not only did Hitler dislike Pfitzner’s music, but apparently he continued to harbour suspicions about Pfitzner’s origins to the end. In short, though Pfitzner’s politics were repellent in many ways, he never achieved the recognition he craved from Hitler himself. After the war, Pfitzner was shattered, his home in Munich had been destroyed, and for a time he was resident in a sanatorium in—of all places—Garmisch, where Strauss, his old nemesis, lived.

Relatively few major composers of the nineteeth and twentieth centuries have written more than one cello concerto. Shostakovich wrote two, as did Saint-Saëns, Schnittke, Kabalevsky and Villa-Lobos; Dvorák sketched an early concerto for the instrument (later edited by various hands) as well as writing his famous B minor Concerto. But Pfitzner is unusual in having written three cello concertos in the course of his career—one of them a student work (which, incidentally, predates Dvorák’s B minor Concerto), while the other two are from the end of his career.

The early Cello Concerto in A minor, Op posth., was written in 1888, the result of Pfitzner’s friendship with the cellist Heinrich Kiefer (1867–1922)—a fellow student at the Frankfurt Conservatory. In order for the work to be performed, it needed approval from the Director, Bernhard Scholz, but he was unimpressed, noting with outrage that Pfitzner had made what he considered an elemetary error in using ‘three trombones in a cello concerto!’. (In passing, it should be noted that in his 1894–5 concerto, Dvorák used not only three trombones but also a tuba.) An attempt to obtain support for the work from Max Bruch also failed—a smarting Pfitzner later recalled ‘an awfully impolite letter’ from the older composer. Pfitzner recycled a few musical ideas from the concerto in his first opera, Der arme Heinrich, but the manuscript of his early Cello Concerto subsequently disappeared, much to the composer’s distress, since he believed that it contained worthwhile music and always regarded it with affectionate nostalgia—as he showed by returning to it when writing the Op 52 Cello Concerto in later life.

The A minor Concerto is in two sections. The first begins Andante molto moderato with a gently swaying theme that emerges from the orchestral cellos and a solo bassoon, soon followed by the first entry of the soloist on a long, very quiet held E which develops into a lyrical and increasingly dramatic soliloquy that leads to the main Allegro. There’s a youthful energy about this music—Pfitzner at his most unselfconscious, relishing the challenge of writing for a brilliant virtuoso soloist who brings the movement to a close with a dazzling scale in octaves. The second section is of a less predictable formal design. It opens with the expressive core of the concerto, a long-breathed Adagio molto tranquillo which is dominated by a song-like melody introduced by the soloist and subsequently developed in a rapturous dialogue with the orchestra, especially the woodwind. A brief, exciting Allegro recalling the falling theme from the first movement is followed by a reflective cadenza for the soloist, and a return to the mood of the work’s opening, reaching a serene conclusion in A major. This early work was first performed in public on 18 February 1977, by the cellist Esther Nyffenegger with the orchestra of the Würzburg Musikhochschule conducted by Hermann Dechant, and it was published the following year.

Pfitzner’s Cello Concerto in G major, Op 42, was written almost half a century later. Completed in 1935, this richly melodic single span was composed for the cellist Gaspar Cassadó (1897–1966). Pfitzner may not necessarily be the first name to come to mind for a composer whose music is concise and organic, but both these aspects of the composer’s craft are apparent in this beautifully constructed concerto. The thematic material is all derived from the lyrical cello solo (heard over a quiet timpani roll) at the very start of the work. Contrasting with this close integration of musical ideas, Pfitzner explores his material through a cleverly controlled variety of pace. The orchestration is deft and often delicate, never submerging the solo instrument, but full of attractive surprises, not least the tumbling trumpet fanfares that introduce the first of the faster sections. Though the concerto was written for Cassadó, one of the finest cellists of his generation, there is plenty of musical argument at the centre of the work where the soloist takes a subsidiary role, allowing extensive, sometimes witty dialogue to develop between the strings and woodwind. The soloist crowns this with a highly expressive return of the main theme leading to a lovely coda—a restrained, harp-drenched transfiguration of the opening theme, with the soloist bringing the music to a quietly rapturous close.

The Cello Concerto in A minor, Op 52, is dedicated to Ludwig Hoelscher (1907–1996), a pupil of two giants of German cello-playing: Hugo Becker and Julius Klengel. It was completed in 1943 and published in 1944. A note at the front of the score quotes the main theme of the 1888 Cello Concerto beneath which Pfitzner has written:

In this Cello Concerto Op 52 there is woven a melody which was the main theme of a Cello Concerto written during my time at the Conservatory. This youthful work has never been performed … but the main theme seems to me worthy to be rescued from oblivion. I have used it in some parts of this work from my old age as a salute to my youth.

The Op 52 Cello Concerto uses a modestly proportioned classical orchestra (double wind, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, percussion, harp and strings) and is cast in four movements. The first, marked Ruhig (‘Peaceful’), is in gently flowing triple time, while the second (Nicht zu schnell—‘Not too fast’) is a spiky duple-time scherzo. A moto perpetuo launched by the soloist soon gives way to a a delightful rollicking tune (beginning as a descending major scale) that sounds as if it could have escaped from an operetta. The third movement, Feierlich (‘Solemn’), is short but most eloquent, and the finale is an Allegretto in the style of a jig, dominated by a rather jaunty theme.

In 1937, Pfitzner composed his Duo, Op 43, for violin, cello and small orchestra, dedicating it to the violinist Max Strub and cellist Ludwig Hoelscher. It is a single movement in three distinct sections: the first is a stern and serious Allegro moderato; this is followed by a slow section, much of it in recitative-like dialogue between the two soloists; and finally the music turns to A major for the closing section, moderately fast, in triple time. This is a work with moments of great charm, even if it doesn’t quite match the memorable character of the cello concertos.

Nigel Simeone © 2014


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