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Ionarts-at-Large: Pfitzner and Schumann's Requiem

When the orchestra of the Munich Philharmonic makes a sound, it makes a glorious sound. Whether, in the end, you agree with the use to which they – or their conductor Christian Thielemann – use that sound, there is no avoiding to be impressed.

Indeed, if you had to judge the top three orchestras in Munich by just one chord – like the opening statement of Schumann’s Manfred Overture – the Munich Philharmonic would come out on top. As it were, the program on November 29th was (once again) built around the orchestra’s sound with the Schumann overture having been accompanied by Pfitzner and Strauss orchestral songs and a grand finale in the form of Schumann’s reappearance with the Requiem in D-flat op.148.

available at Amazon
Strauss, Complete Orchestral Songs,
Haider / Niece PO /
Pieczonka, Gruberova, Howarth, Petrova, Straka, Skovhus, Moll

When the Bavarian State Orchestra played Schumann’s 4th Symphony (in the original version from 1841) they gave the symphony a lightness that truly put it in line with earlier Schumann work. When the Munich Philharmonic plays Schumann, it all sounds like late Schumann, no matter the date of composition. And so the Manfred Overture was a sumptuous, finely honed, romantic way to lead up to the potential highlight: Two orchestral songs by Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner, each. With Kwangchul Youn at hand and the Pfitzner-champion Thielemann guiding the orchestra most sensitively, Das Thal, op.51/1 and Der Einsame, op.51/2 (Strauss) and Lethe, op.37 and Zorn, op.15/2 the result was most pleasing.

Thielemann on Ionarts:

Tristan & Isolde, "Dip Your Ears, No. 7"(July 20, 2004)

Bruckner, Sy.5, "Slow Food for the Ears"(April 24, 2005)

Parsifal, "This is Thielemann's Parsifal"(May 25, 2006)

"Thielemann's Secret Work at Bayreuth"(September 01, 2006)

Concert with the MPHIL, "Strauss with Thielemann" (Saturday, October 27, 2007)
Both Strauss songs are marvels well deserving their orchestration (not all Strauss songs do). More marvelous still was how Thielemann, a singer’s conductor through-and-through, tried to balance the orchestral forces with the incredibly low lie of the bass part. There are voices more suited for the very lowest parts of these songs than Kwangchul Youn’s (it is difficult not to growl “Finsterniss so dumpf und dicht” in Der Einsame) and there are better times for a bass to sing them than in the late AM after three performances on the three preceding days. Still conductor and orchestra navigated around the treacherous parts and the effortfully but valiantly struggling Kwangchul Youn was rarely overpowered. The short but powerful Pfitzner-gem Zorn (“Anger”) had to be encored.

Since Pfitzner has a political PR problem and there are plenty who will resist his music (and performances thereof) on grounds of his unfortunate proximity to the National Socialist regime (not possibly any closer than Herbert von Karajan, one may add), dedicated performances are all the more necessary. Thielemann can be relied upon for that – though his advocacy alone won’t be enough.

And he almost didn’t do Pfitzner any favors with the second half of the concert: ‘Rescuing’ the Schumann Requiem for soloists, choir, and orchestra in D-flat major from relative obscurity, with a performance that was nothing short of superlative, might justly have reduced any review of the first half to a short paragraph.

available at Amazon
R.Schumann, Requiem op.148,
Klee / Düsseldorf SO /
Donath, Soffel, Gedda, Dieskau

Can only committed, absolutely exceptional performances make a masterpiece out of this work? I am certain that it’s a ‘troubled’ work – but there was nothing troubling about it when the Munich Philharmonic presented it with the soloists Sibylla Rubens, Ann-Katrin Naidu, Christian Elsner, Reinhard Hagen, and especially the Philharmonic Chorus of Munich. From the hauntingly beautiful opening Requiem aeternam to the Te decet hymnus (during which I had to think of Mendelssohn’s Resurrection symphony) to the forward-marching Dies irae (by which point I was finally, completely lost in the music) all the way to the Sanctus (a little Mozart-allusion on “Pleni sunt coeli”) and the lyrical, humble, hopeful, resigned Benedictus which concludes on the word “Requiem” in a way that truly suggests eternal Rest, this was a spectacular experience. How can it be that only two recordings of this work exist, one of which fairly obscure and hard to get? After this performance one suspects – or at least hopes – that the Schumann Requiem is Christian Thielemann’s next project for Deutsche Grammophon.

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