As part of my CD binge this week (I have 27 new CDs to listen to, and will have one new video courtesy of a not-to-be-named opera angel), I decided to pick up a used copy of Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina. My only prior experience with this apparently not too nice composer/conductor was a pair of his string quartets, which I found rather bland ‘n’ boring. But this set has one of my favorite conductors at the helm, and has some rather accomplished singers: Nicolai Gedda takes the title role, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is on hand as a member of the clergy, as is Karl Ridderbusch, and then there’s Hermann Prey in the cast, and even Brigitte Fassbaender playing a 17 year old boy, something she’s quite good at.

The opera revolves around Palestrina’s composition of his best known work, the Missa Papae Marcelli. (I’ve never heard the piece, so I suppose I probably should now.) Dieskau, er, Borromeo comes to implore Palestrina to write a new Mass to meet the needs of the Church, what with the Pope having convened a Counter-Reformation meeting of big time clerics to set out a new direction for the Church. But Palestrina refuses. He is old and tired and has lost his inspiration. Borromeo is peeved, and has the defiant Italian thrown in the slammer, but not until Palestrina writes his entire Mass in one evening of supreme inspiration, complete with angels spurring him on. Then there is a tussle between the competing factions of the Church in Act II, and then when everyone hears the Mass and realizes how great it is, everyone is impressed and wants to reward Palestrina, including the Pope and a foot-kissing Borromeo. That’s a pretty brief description of the events, but really, it is quite a static work. The libretto is dense and verbose, easily matching Wagner for sheer length, though it is better written.

But how’s the music? Well, it starts out very promising, with Fassbaender opening the piece musing on music and life, and then when Palestrina’s son comes in (sung by a soprano, of course), they sing about these things together. The initial encounter between Borromeo and Palestrina is quite good, but then it drags and drags and drags. Even the conclusion of the first act, with the heavenly inspiration, is not too heavenly. The music is quite lovely at times, but it sounds quite a bit like warmed over Wagner, and indeed, the whole thing makes me think that the composer tried to mix Die Meistersinger and Parsifal together in a 16th Century Italian setting. At the end of the long first Act, I held out little hope for the rest of the work. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised. Act II is more dramatic, both in terms of character interaction and music. The beautiful passages, of which there are plenty, are quite beautiful at times. And Act III is the best of the lot. It is compact, tightly written, and filled with the best, most beautiful, most moving music in the work.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus both perform at the high level that Mr Kubelik so often seemed to extract, and the cast is about as good as could be assembled for this piece. Even Dieskau does a good job, though he does grate at times. Sound is good and not as bright as some other contemporaneous DG recordings (form the late-60s / early-70s period).

So, I rate this work a success, though not a great German opera on the same level as the best from Wagner, Strauss, Berg, or Mozart. I’ll no doubt listen to it again, and if you’re interested in lesser-known operas, this may be one to consider.

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