In Palestrina, Pfitzner was an inheritor of Wagner’s through-composed music dramas – indeed, his sparing use of vocal display, of duets and of the chorus obeys the tenets of Opera and Drama more strictly than Wagner himself. But he had also listened to Carmen and sensed the revolution in character, pace and drama delivered by the new Italian veristi. He approached his sacred and serious subject more in their manner than Wagner’s in Parsifal or Die Meistersinger.
Act 1 of Palestrina runs more like a Puccini act. The personal arguments of Ighino and Silla upgrade to the conflict of a worn-out artist and an autocratic churchman (Borromeo). Then all is capped by two ‘miraculous’ appearances – the old masters and the angels – and a ‘miracle’ of creation: a new Mass composed in one night after years of writer’s block. It’s uncannily redolent of its exact contemporaries Suor Angelica and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Pfitzner also knew how to follow up this big opening act: a busy, almost comic ensemble scene (the Council of Trent) and a short resolution (Act 3).
When the gramophone first came to record Palestrina (DG, 1972), it loaded the cast with names – Gedda, Fischer-Dieskau, Ridderbusch, Prey, Weikl – to try to match those on the circulating ‘live’ tapes under Robert Heger. (One of those, now on Myto, even had Sena Jurinac and Christa Ludwig as Palestrina’s son and pupil.) Oehms’s new release – no one has told Frankfurt that full-scale operas are not being recorded these days – is not like that at all. It’s a well played-in ensemble performance under a wise old stage director (Harry Kupfer).
Conductor Kirill Petrenko, leader of Bayreuth’s bicentenary Ring, matches Rudolf Kempe’s recently rediscovered 1955 Salzburg performance (Walhall): they’re both compelling story-tellers of large-scale operatic narrative who can mix and match dialogue scenes with varied tempi and dramatically appropriate orchestral balance. Frankfurt’s cast has plenty of gutsy ecclesiastical characters in the Council scene, Stallmeister and Mahnke do well by Ighino and Silla (but don’t miss young Elisabeth Söderström’s Son for Kempe), Koch is a worthy Borromeo and the whole is a triumph for British tenor Peter Bronder in the title-role. Unless you’re allergic to live recordings, there’s little to complain about there either. At the moment I’d look for my recorded Palestrina from this new Oehms, a sneaky listen to a Thielemann/Covent Garden broadcast or the Kempe – not so well transferred, some great older characters (Max Lorenz, Ferdinand Frantz) and magically conducted.