HANS PFITZNER

1869-1949

Although scarcely a household name as a composer, Hans Pfitzner comes down to us better known for his opera Palestrina – important European productions of it have been conducted by Bruno Walter, Josef Krips, Robert Heger – than his recordings of Beethoven symphonies and a few other items made in Berlin about 1930. Suffice to say if he hadn’t written a note of music he’d have left a legacy: this is an important conductor. Pfitzner stares at us intently and a little suspiciously from the cover of a recent reissue of his Beethoven Fourth, a Byronical-professorial figure with the shaggy cow-catcher beard of an Asian sage, a windswept Ping or Pong transferred to Unter den Linden. He was, apparently, a proud and very difficult man, witness the tortured friendship his younger colleague Bruno Walter managed against many odds to almost sustain over many years: its crescendi and diminuendi are chronicled in the excellent Walter biography by Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky.

This volatile temperament finds its artistic place in a podium style that’s full of fizz and poetry, Pfitzner the conductor is like a benign time bomb exploding into beauties. His Eroica recording is daring and confident, Olympian and sexy, loose-limbed yet forceful, carefully articulated while fostering spontaneity, nostalgia, suspense. It delves delightfully into inner places, lilt is one of its glories, and sound too — Pfitzner seems in his relishing of all the sonic chocolate mousse the Berlin Philharmonic can dish out a student of Leopold Stokowski’s recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

And did I hear you say Nikisch?

Beethoven’s marking for the Eroica’s first movement, an unrealistically fast d. = 60, has star billing on the composer’s famously oddball metronome. Weingartner like the patient therapist who would keep an irascible composer true to his real purpose proposes 54 beats to the minute as a base tempo with license to drop at times below it – all this, he rightly says, to avoid “trivializing” the music – and Pfitzner with his rather greater daring chooses about 48, a rich choice shared by many of his colleagues down the decades, reducing a good notch for, to give one prominent example, the tidal theme that emerges in the oboes in a clearing of the development section, bar 284 to be exact, and can easily be read as contemplative. In the funeral march that follows Pfitzner seems to be holding onto stoicism tenaciously. The broadly-paced “hunting horn” trio arriving in the wake of a very breezy scherzo is absolutely blazing with Panache; then his finale with its poetic hesitations sets off on a voyage of discovery.