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ASO - Complicated Friendship: Hans Pfitzner and Bruno Walter

- Classical and Cultural: Music Performance Reviews

American Symphony Orchestra

Complicated Friendship:
Hans Pfitzner and Bruno Walter
(Bruno Walter Biography)

Leon Botstein: Music Director and Conductor
Alexander Markov, Violin

Performed at Avery Fisher Hall
Lincoln Center,

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
October 15, 2004

Both Hans Pfitzner and Bruno Walter were composers and conductors. Walter, sensitive to criticism, abandoned composition early in his career and became renowned for his conducting abilities. Walter and Pfitzner were friends, collaborators, but eventually broke correspondence, due to Pfitzner’s political activities and views during the Hitler years. However, Walter had been a champion of Pfitzner’s compositions and had initially assisted him in what eventually grew to a lesser-known repertoire. Pfitzner had conservative controversial views, but was a romantic at heart. Walter became known throughout the world as a Maestro extraordinaire, and, in the US, conducting in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (Program Notes).

Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949): Palestrina Preludes (1917): Prelude to Act I, Prelude to Act II, Prelude to Act III. Bruno Walter conducted the premiere of Palestrina I Munich, June 12, 1917. Pfitzner composed both music and libretto for this opera, which is about a sixteenth century composer, Palestrina, who saved the traditions of Renaissance music from “dilettantes and …church officials”. Palestrina’s dead wife is invoked in the first Prelude. Other Preludes relate to the struggles of musical philosophy. (Program Notes).

The first Prelude was moody and sorrowful, foreboding with drum rolls interrupting pauses, setting the tone of impending power. The second Prelude, introduced with driven dynamism and developmental force, contained passages reminiscent of haunting film scores. The final note was sharp, precise, and cataclysmic. The third Prelude began slowly, much like the first. Botstein’s emotional body language, without use of baton, was demonstrative and descriptive of the thematic unfolding. There were interwoven bells and combined percussive and string sections for ecstatic effects. Flutes and basses provided tiny ornamentations. Botstein practically danced on his Conductor’s podium.

Hans Pfitzner: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 34 (1923): Lebhaft, energisch, Langsam, sehr getragen, Das Zeitmass des Anfangs, etwas gemachlicher, freier. Alexander Markov, Violin. Pfitzner conducted the premiere of this work on June 4, 1924, in Nuremberg with Alma Moodie as violinist. The three segments are performed as a single movement. (Program Notes).

Alexander Markov is truly a violin virtuoso, and his solos in this Concerto, which was performed with combined movements, contained repetitive phrasing and exquisite sound. His wailing violin, metaphysical and mesmerizing, was followed by clarinets and oboes in soft, whispering melodies. One loses sense of the inherent dissonance in this work, with the infusion of the harp and soft, low background effects. The rapid horn passages, presented on the edges of Markov’s violin, were surreal. Tonight was my introduction to Pfitzner, as well as to Markov, and I would like to hear more of both. Markov was applauded into solo encores, prior to intermission.

Bruno Walter (1876-1962): Symphony No. 1 in D minor (c. 1907) (US Premiere): Moderato, Adagio, Allegro con brio, Agitato. Tonight is the US Premiere of the Symphony and the third time this work has ever been performed. The first movement is a dark meditation, which continues into the second movement. A waltz-like scherzo follows in the third movement, and the final movement is marked by “demonic…drive”. (Program Notes).

The stage of Fisher Hall seemed to be veritably stuffed with musicians, two harps, eight basses, and more. I also noticed a lack of acoustical trapping that is usually prevalent in this Hall, a welcome surprise and tribute to Leon Botstein and his capacity to elicit maximum sound from his Orchestra. The Moderato movement, with sweeping sound in motion, led by eight fused basses, interjected drums as a pronounced entrance for brass flourishes, followed by a waterfall of strings beneath a potent ending, with Botstein’s fist held in the air. Botstein brought his baton onstage for this Symphony.

The Adagio movement began like a ballet with a romantic and passionate theme. The strings seemed to weep, with four celli invoking an echoed theme. In the brief Allegro con Brio movement, bells, trombone, and drums heralded this moment. I imagined ballet lifts and spins, with dizzying effects, provided by powerful percussion, violins, and celli. The Agitato movement was edgy, with the flute like a fluttering swallow. Trombones and celli were eery.

Kudos to Leon Botstein and American Symphony Orchestra for realizing this memorable and informative program, called Complicated Friendship.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at