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Hans Pfitzner: Das Christelflein
31 May 2006

PFITZNER: Das Christelflein

Dubbed a “spieloper,” Hans Pfitzner’s Das Christelflein (“The Christmas Elf”) casts a magical, yet appropriately cool, spell, even in the warm days of late May, the time of this review.

Hans Pfitzner: Das Christelflein

Petersen, Rüping, Connors, Bauer, Volle, Hörl, Röhlig, Salter, Sokol, Tölzer Knabenchor (Ltg.:Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden), Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Claus Peter Flor

cpo 777 155-2 [2CDs]

$31.49  Click to buy

To a libretto by Ilse von Stach, Pfitzner composed music that emphasizes physical beauty, like that of a winter forest landscape, glittering in silver and green. This subtle score, however, accompanies an odd libretto that mixes fantastical elements — a wise old Fir Tree and the elf of the title — with more adult elements, such as an “atheistic” family member who must be converted by a sort of Christmas miracle (the return to health of a sickly child). If trying to follow this mish-mash makes it understandable why the piece has not taken a firm hold in the seasonal repertory, cpo’s recordings still offers a chance to hear some exquisite music, well-recorded and professionally performed.

As opposed to a “singspiel” such as Die Zauberflote, this “spieloper” interweaves instrumental passages, entirely distinct from the rest of the score, with a narration (“zwischentext”) and dramatic scenes that develop into song-like sections. In other words, Das Christelflein hardly strikes the ear as an opera, or even much of a stage show; rather, it seems like a musical setting for a series of tableaux. At any rate, cpo offers a scene by scene synopsis, but no further text, making it difficult to judge, for a non-German speaker, the impact of the piece. It should be said that the speaker, Andrea Sokol, has such perfectly clear diction that your reviewer began to believe he understood her. Though he truly had “keinen Anhaltspunkt” (“no clue”).

At under 100 minutes, the work holds the attention mostly due to the appeal of its luscious orchestration, including a piece built around the classic carol “O Tannenbaum.” The thematic material, other than that song, makes no strong claims to the listener’s memory. If it did, undoubtedly the piece would be better known.

Claus Peter Flor leads the Munich Radio Orchestra in a translucent performance, and he has a most able cast. Most notable is Marlis Petersen, soprano, who sings the Elf without any mannerisms, staying true to Pfitzner’s elegant vocal lines. Friedmann Rohlig, who has sung memorably at San Francisco Opera in recent years, uses his attractive bass to characterize the old Fir Tree, “Tannengreis,” though the tessitura seems to get a little high for him in places.

Das Christelflein definitely deserved to be revived for this fine recording. It may never make it back into the world’s concert halls, even at the appropriate time of year, but cpo once again proves itself an invaluable resource for throwing light into dark corners of the repertory.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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