Das Christ-Elflein - The Little Elf of Christ - shows another side of Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) - a German composer you might know from his great opera Palestrina, or purely via a reputation for 'difficult,' very serious music. This could hardly be more different, music of great warmth and confidence, veering more towards Humperdinck's opera Hänsel und Gretel than to anything grittier.
We shouldn't forget that Pfitzner was himself a conductor (he recorded with the Berliner Philharmoniker, no less). So before we get to this Orfeo box under consideration today, here's a link to the composer himself in the Overture (I love the YouTube photo as it shows the original Polydor 78 rpm label). You can also compare that with Eichhorn's drmaatically painted performance here:
So, here is a performance with Helen Donath headlining as the Elf; and, just as in this recent post of Christmas music, she is partnered by the Munich Radio Orchestra under Kurt Eichhorn.
Here is a brief synopsis of the plot:
The sound of Christmas bells and carols awakens in an elf the wish to draw close to humans. Although the old fir tree warns him of the heartlessness of the human race, he nevertheless leaves his forest home. He in fact becomes acquainted with grief and illness, he eventually offers himself to be taken to heaven instead of the ill Trautchen (the sister of Fiedler, who no longer believes in God). The Christ-child agrees to the exchange, Trautchen is cured, and from now on the elf will come to earth from heaven each year at Christmas as a Christmas elf. The piece ends with a happy Christmas party by Trautchen’s family.
The present recording is a production by the Bavarian Radio in which the original texts that Pfitzner placed between the individual numbers are replaced by a text by German journalist and literary writer Alois Fink, the narrator.
Luckily, the complete opera is available here to sample at leisure:
Pfitzner does achieve miracles in this score. It's not often we write about the lightness of disjunct intervals, but try this from act I, “Du holdes Puppengesicht’, a lovely ten-minute excerpt. One might well suggest a parallel to the music of Zemlinsky here, also:
... while this passage, “Regenfolge,” reminds me of Humperdinck. There is some harshness to the recording in the upper frequencies, but this remains delightful:
There is power here, too. Take the Introduction to act II:
Pfitzner does pull out all the stops: here is the magical children's choir in the second act:
Here is an extended excerpt, containing a long passage for Donath, the true star of the show, full of simplicity and lightness; as is the orchestra in response:
Also, let's take this as a final example of Donath's pure artistry:
Maybe there is the odd quibble: CD 2 track 4, the narration comes in too quickly, for example. But they are minor, and the sound, albeit of its time (November 1979 radio), is, to my ears, perfectly acceptable.
Alexander Malta is excellent as the Ancient Fir (Der Tannengreis); perhaps I am less taken by Janet Perry's Christ Child (Das Christkindchen), a little tremulous of voice, at least incomparison with Donath, but then again she is in exalted company ... But as Knecht Ruprecht, Nikolaus Hillebrand is magnificently firm of voice (he comes in just after the narrator in this excerpt):
We didn't get to enjoy Eichhorn's conducting anywhere near as much in the Christmas disc with Donath; here the orchestra is absolutely vital, and the Munich Radio Orchestra is magnificent throughout.
The final chorus has something of the ecstasy of the end of Gounod's Faust, but with a German accent:
Alois Fink is the wonderful narrator, but be warned it is all in German and there is only a synopsis provided (ie no text and translation). Interestingly, there is a more modern recording, on cpo with the same orchestra (the Munch Radio Orchestra, there conducted by Claus-Peter Flor and with Marlis Petersen as the Elf) but for me, there is something about the Eichhorn/Donath performance that captures the very essence not just of Pfitzner's score but of Christmas itself.
Put simply, this is a Christmas revelation. The Orfeo label has done us proud this year. Pfitzner's writing is often as warm as gingery Lebkuchen, and just as satisfyingly delicious ...
Now, as an addendum let's have a (non-Christmassy) bonus. I mentioned Pfitzner the conductor: here is Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral” with the Berlin Philharmonic, a 1930 recording; and yes, I've chosen a video with the record label of the actual disc (a Polydor 78) reproduced as the music plays, which is perhaps a touch geeky!. You might find this “Pastoral” a touch slow but bear with it, the affection is remarkable and there is, despite this being a 78, plenty of detail. Pfitzner's “Pastoral” was with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra:
So, whether it's Pfitzner's opera or the Beethoven - enjoy!