Routinely demonised as an arch-conservative German nationalist with anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi tendencies—though Hitler himself reportedly dismissed him as ‘that old rabbi’, wrongly believing him to be part-Jewish—Hans Pfitzner is hardly the only example of an apparently unsympathetic man who wrote much deeply sympathetic music and, in the case of his opera Palestrina, at least one transcendent masterpiece.
The three Cello Concertos recorded here never approach the exalted inspiration of that visionary work, but they do 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.