Topic: 047) Palestrina 1973
Approached as an essay in words and music on a particularly resonant historic moment, when music, church and international politics stood at the same crossroads, Palestrina is an inspiring and often inspired work. It has at its heart one of the most visionary scenes in all opera, the apparition to Palestrina of the ghosts of his musical ancestors, urging him to save the art of polyphony by composing a Mass that will confound counter-reformation zealotry; it is followed by a still more moving tableau in which the heavens open to reveal a choir of angels from whose dictation Palestrina writes the Missa Papae Marcelli. Judged by conventional operatic criteria, however, the work is awkward and gravely flawed. The main line of its plot is furthered hardly at all by the Second Act, which is a lengthy, albeit brilliantly dramatized, resume of ecclesiastical politics at the Council of Trent, in which the composer's name is mentioned briefly, almost in passing, twice. The proportions of the opera are ungainly, too (the acts last roughly 100, 75 and a bare 30 minutes respectively), and to make matters apparently worse, the music and the text seem at times to be out-of-phase.
Perhaps the most affecting scene in Act 3 is the reunion of Palestrina and Cardinal Borromeo. Moved to tears by literally heavenly music, the Prince of the Church (who had commissioned the Mass and imprisoned Palestrina when he failed to deliser it) throws himself at the composer's feet and begs his forgiveness. Pfitzner's orchestra, as Borromeo falls to his knees and as Palestrina gently raises and embraces him, says all that is in both men's hearts and says it most movingly, but the rather plain lines of dialogue between those two orchestral passages add very little to them. At other times plainness of dialogue is just what you feel you need: Pfitzner's orchestral writing is so richly eventful, his counterpoint so cunningly wrought (and yes, I suppose one must admit, at times so unremitting) that you long either for a moment or two of thinly accompanied simple recitative or for the words to get out of the music's way. And yet I would not have the libretto (Pfitzner's own) a line shorter. Complex though it is, it is of remarkable quality, full of incident and beautiful imagery; it would work well as a spoken play.
In the opera house this sense of a play and a sequence of orchestral meditations upon it being performed simultaneously could be a problem; so could the long and densely populated scenes that seem to come from another opera (called Borromeo, perhaps). But in a fine recorded performance it is easier to accept that this is, so to speak, an opera with footnotes and appendices. The great passages (apart from the apparition scenes they include the eloquent preludes to all three acts, the culminatory pages of Borromeo's and Palestrina's monologues in Act 1, two impressive addresses in Act 2 and the beautiful end of the opera as Palestrina, left alone, returns to his music) are in an odd sort of way justified by what only a severe critic would dismiss as the pages of finicking detail between them. They are no more tiresome than those quarts-d'heure in which Wagner's characters remind the audience of what has been happening so far, and once you have allowed them to set the nobler moments in context, you can always skip them on later hearings (DG have provided plentiful cuing bands).
You will probably not want to when even the minor character roles are as strongly cast as they are here. There is not a weak link among them, and primus though Gedda's stalwartly eloquent Palestrina and Fischer-Dieskau's grandly authoritative Borromeo are they are very much inter pares with the likes of Ridderbusch, Weikl, Steinbach and Nienstedt around. Donath is bright and touching as Palestrina's young son, Fassbaender an impulsively eager pupil. Some of the real urgency that all these singers bring to their parts must be due to the inspired choice of a conductor in whom passion and intellect are ideally balanced, it sounds as though this opera was very close to Kubelik's heart and head, and he directs with noble eloquence. The recording copes with Pfitzner's vast resources very well, with an excellent sense of a space having depth as well as breadth. The sound is a little bright at times (Donath's purity is slightly edged), but for the most part both clear and sumptuous. An exceptionally welcome CD reissue.
-- Michael Oliver, Gramophone [7/1989]
Nicolai Gedda, Karl Ridderbusch, Bernd Weikl, Herbert Steinbach, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Victor von Halem, John van Kesteren, Peter Meven, Hermann Prey, Friedrich Lenz, Adalbert Kraus, Franz Mazura, Helen Donath, Brigitte Fassbaender, Gerd Nienstedt; Bavarian Radio Chorus; Tölz Boys' Choir; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelík, conductor
Recorded in Munich, 1973
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