Pfitzner Christ Elflein Orfeo

Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949)
Das Christ-Elflein, Op 20
Helen Donath, soprano – The Elf
Janet Perry, soprano – The Christ-child
Alexander Malta, bass – The ancient fir
Nicolaus Hillebrand, bass – Knecht Ruprecht
Paul Hansen, bass – Gumpach
Claes H Ahnsjö, tenor – Frieder
Raimund Grumbach, bass – Franz
Ferry Gruber, tenor – Jochen

Text and Narrator: Alois Fink
Bavarian Radio Choir
Munich Radio Orchestra/Kurt Eichorn
rec. 30 November 1979, Bavarian Radio Studios
ORFEO C230082 [2 CDs: 101]

One does not usually associate the name of Hans Pfitzner with light-heartedness; indeed, it is not for nothing that his best-known opera Palestrina once earned a reputation as “Parsifal without the jokes.” And it seems to have astonished even his supporters when he followed up the success of Palestrina with his fluffy confection of a Christmas fairy-tale which comprehensively surpasses even the wildest excesses of Walt Disney for sentimentality and cute cuddliness. He had some justification – Das Christ-Elflein was not a new work, but an expansion revision of incidental music he had written for a play some ten years before – but this is nevertheless hardly the sort of thing one expects from the composer of such romantic effusions as Der Rose vom Liebesgarten or Das Herz, let alone those earnest symphonies and concertos that have been slowly emerging from obscurity over recent years. Even Bruno Walter, whose enthusiasm did so much to promote Palestrina, was moved to write of the original play: “There is no child so childish and no man so lizard-like [eidechsenartigen] that he could in the least be won over by this fable.”

Well, that really says quite a lot, and it would be a bold reviewer who would stand out against such an excoriating judgement on the plot of Das Christ-Elflein. But then, there was a definite tradition at this period for composers to write operas and musical plays for children which stepped recklessly over the borders from innocence and simplicity to simple mawkishness. One has only to look at Elgar’s Starlight Express to see a parallel; and the works such as Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel which manage to stay just on the right side of the divide were probably very much the exception. Even Barrie’s Peter Pan, with its persistently dark undertones (“he is never touched by anybody in the course of the play”) garnered its fair share of contemporary critical brickbats. I am not going to rehearse the plot of Das Christ-Elflein in any detail; suffice it to say that it revolves around a forest elf who defies the warnings of the fir tree to enter a human household, where he assists a heavenly Christ-child to save the life of a sick girl by dying in her place and thereby enters the realm of Christmas legend. So there.

No, what really matters here is the music. And it must be admitted that, charming though it is, it hardly represents Pfitzner at his richest or his best. The opening prelude, with music that returns later during the opera, is gently and simply phrased and sets the scene well without arousing too much in the way of grandiose expectations. Indeed, throughout the two quite lengthy Acts, the composer avoids any sense of cloying clumsiness or gawkiness; and the music for the Christmas Elf and the Christ-child (both sopranos) blend in the style of Hansel and Gretel, or the final duet from Der Rosenkavalier, with a simplicity and innocence that ooze charm from every pore. The odd dissenting note is struck by the fir tree, complaining of the manner in which his forest is being cut down to provide Christmas decorations; and even he is mollified and reconciled by the end.

Although Pfitzner described the revised work as a Spieloper, the score clearly betrays its origins as a spoken play with incidental music – and not just in the dance numbers which were clearly interpolations in the pantomime version. The score is divided into some twenty individual numbers, each of them separated by passages of spoken dialogue which assist the plot on its way. The dialogue is printed in full in the score, and to be quite honest one is generally grateful that it is omitted in this performance. But there are also a couple of melodramas (that is, spoken text over orchestral music) and here too the dialogue is omitted. That is a mistake, since the text is clearly closely linked to certain passages of the musical accompaniment and seems indeed to constitute some of the most dramatic moments in the whole. And what we are given instead is an intrusive narrator who summarises the plot between numbers, sometimes employing passages of the original dialogue and sometimes even expanding on it, in sections of spoken German of as much as a minute long. Now this was a standard technique in recordings in the 1970s when this radio broadcast was undertaken (DG did the same in their commercial sets of Weber’s Oberon and Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor) but the very chatty tone adopted by the anonymous and uncredited Erzähler and his close proximity to the microphone effectively destroy the atmosphere on every occasion he makes his presence felt. Although these tracks of narration are wherever possible isolated on separate tracks, there are occasions when they overlap with the music, to equally disastrous effect. And those who do not speak German are not even told what he is saying, since if there ever were texts or translations provided with this recording, they are not in evidence here.

And all of that is a shame, because the performance itself is exquisite. The lion’s share of the singing goes to the two sopranos, and Helen Donath and Janet Perry, both famous Sophies from Der Rosenkavalier, are ideally suited to the music; Donath even displays a neat touch in coloratura as she ascends heavenwards at the end. Alexander Malta is impressive as the ‘ancient fir’ (his first note is a low E below the bass clef!), Nikolaus Hillebrand is a bit blustery as the German folk hero Knecht Ruprecht, and the grieving father and brother of the ailing child are portrayed sympathetically by Paul Hansen and Claes H Ahnsjö. The two comic servants are well taken by Raimund Grumbach and Ferry Gruber; the remaining characters, the mother, the dying daughter, and the doctor are confined to the spoken dialogue and therefore silent.

The choral singing in the capable hands of the Bavarian Radio Chorus, and the playing of the Munich Radio Orchestra, are expertly delivered and sympathetically recorded by the broadcast engineers. Kurt Eichorn, a veteran conductor of the Munich body and the hero of many revivals of otherwise forgotten operas, brings exactly the right lightness of touch to proceedings without over-emotionally egging of the Christmas pudding. There are, as noted, no texts or translations; but notes are provided in both German and English together with an extensive synopsis of the action (such as it is). The ever-useful ISMLP site furnished me with a vocal score, which only comes with German text but was nevertheless invaluable in keeping me appraised of events as they occurred. And the performance, despite the intrusive narration, does have the advantage of a studio recording – which means that all the notes are there, in the right place, clearly audible and without any intrusive cuts.

There is however an alternative recording, also from Munich Radio forces, issued in 2005 by CPO and conducted by Claus Peter Flor and featuring Marlis Petersen. Unfortunately that version, although taken from a live performance, also omitted the spoken dialogue (including the melodramas) and substituted a spoken narration; and once again texts and translations were missing. An older 1969 Austrian Radio recording appearing on LP in 1980 did include abridged dialogue, but does not appear to have ever been commercially issued on CD. Therefore, and given the superior cast of this Orfeo recording, those seeking a version of the work need look no further.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


The LP booklet with libretto (german-english) can be found here:

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