Pfitzner: Quintet Op 23 & Sextet Op 55 / Ulf Hoelscher Ensemble

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PFITZNER Piano Quintet in C, op. 23. Sextet in g, op. 55 Ens Ulf Hoelscher cpo 777 395 (68:29)

Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949) provides a case study in the “do what I say, not what I do” philosophy. An exact contemporary of Richard Strauss, Pfitzner was in word, if not always in deed, a fierce anti-modernist. In a pamphlet titled Danger of Futurists , a rejoinder to Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music , he railed against those who “place all hopes for Western music in the future and understand the present and past as a faltering beginning, as the preparation.” But “What if,” he asks, “we find ourselves presently at a high point, or even that we have already passed beyond it?” Clearly, Pfitzner’s professed views have found favor with those of us who fear that Western music (its composition as opposed to its performance) has been in a state of decline since the end of the 19th century. And in his earlier works, Pfitzner remains true to his stated beliefs and values. In expressive range and Romantic idiom, his B-Minor Violin Concerto once rivaled Bruch’s G-Minor Concerto in popularity. Like Strauss, however, Pfitzner lived a long life, and some of his later works—those leading up to and after WW II—often reflect the inescapable and more progressive tendencies of Berg and Schoenberg.

Writing in virtually all musical genres except symphonic tone poem—Strauss dominated that domain—Pfitzner is mainly remembered today for his opera Palestrina . It was not that work, however, but a Sonata in E-Minor for Violin and Piano and some of his earliest chamber works—the op. 1 Sonata for Cello and Piano in F? Minor and the Piano Trio in F-Major, op. 8—that were my introduction to what one writer called this “hyper-Romantic” composer.

There can be no doubt, as one listens to the 1908 C-Major Piano Quintet recorded here, that had Brahms lived but another 11 years, this is the work he would have written. All that is necessary to make that leap is to hear the first 15 seconds of it with its remarkable resemblance to the opening of Brahms’s G-Major Sextet. Where Pfitzner departs from Brahms is in the unfolding of his thematic material, which becomes much more chromatic, dissonance-laden, and prolix, in the manner of César Franck. Crossbreed Brahms and Franck and the offspring is Pfitzner’s Quintet.

The G-Minor Sextet for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano belies its date of composition, 1945, and the circumstances under which it was written. Pfitzner was ill and almost blind; it would be Pfitzner’s penultimate work. His initial instinct was to call it a suite, not only because it’s in five movements, but because of its relatively lightweight divertimento- or serenade-like character. There is nothing in the piece to suggest the nostalgic leave-taking of Strauss’s Four Last Songs . For the most part, the Sextet is melodically and harmonically uncomplicated, and has about it a rhythmically lilting dance-like quality that occasionally—listen to the Rondoletto movement—hints at Klezmer music. The clarinet, of course, helps to foster this impression. What a really lovely score this is.

Ulf Hoelscher, from whom the Ensemble takes its name, is himself a noted violin soloist who has made numerous recordings of both mainstream and some not-so-mainstream repertoire. With a group of the same name, he has also recorded for cpo an octet and quintets by Bruch, but it is not clear if this is a permanent group similar to England’s Nash Ensemble, which with a relatively stable lineup of personnel shape-shifts itself according to the demands of instrumentation, or if it’s an ad hoc assembly of musicians that are newly selected for each project. I suspect the latter, since I have the Bruch disc in question, and except for Hoelscher and pianist Ian Fountain, there is no other commonality of players between the two recordings.

As always, cpo is to be commended, not just for excellence in sound, but for salvaging so many buried treasures of the late 19th- and early-20th centuries. There is some recorded competition in these two works from two other CDs that, as coincidence would have it, are coupled exactly as here with the same two opus numbers. I haven’t heard the one with the Consortium Classicum, which I believe plays on period instruments. If that is the case, I reject the recording out of hand for reasons I needn’t rehash here. The other, on Preiser, with another ad hoc ensemble of players, I have heard, and I find the performances solid if a bit stolid, and nowhere nearly as full-throated and vibrant as those on the current cpo release. Strongly recommended to those with a taste for chamber music of the unrepentantly post-Romantic kind.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 777395-2

  • UPC: 761203739523

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Hans Pfitzner

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ulf Hoelscher Ensemble

  • Performer: Gustav Rivinius, Ian Fountain, Mayra Salinas, Roland Glassl, Ulf Hoelscher, Wolfgang Meyer