What a triple bill: Debussy's achingly sensual Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Mozart's elegantly graceful Symphony No. 33 in B flat major, and Pfitzner's one-of-a-kind Violin Concerto all included on the same program, in this case, on a concert in the Konzertsaal of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik performed by the RIAS-Sinfonieorchester under the direction of Rudolf Kempe in March 1955. When this Archipel disc of the concert was released in 2007, few contemporary conductors would have coupled Debussy with Mozart and fewer still would have programmed anything by nearly forgotten Hans Pfitzner. Yet as Kempe and the RIAS musicians showed 50 years earlier, not only do the French and the Austrian composer's music go well together, but the almost forgotten German composer's music is more memorable than its reputation would allow.
With Debussy and Mozart, the program plays a game of compare and contrast. Kempe's Debussy is sweeping in conception and highly charged in atmosphere, and the German orchestra responds with a lush-toned, richly textured performance. Yet the same conductor's Mozart is crisply articulated and strongly structural in this poised but powerful performance. With Pfitzner, the program switches to name that influence. Written in one movement and based on variants of a single leitmotif, Pfitzner's Violin Concerto is full of hints of other composers: Wagner in the opening section's dramatic brass, Schumann in the central section's doleful winds and the dance section's gentle harp, and Strauss in the closing section's combination of humorous winds and heartwarming strings. Yet violinist Gerhardt Taschner finds the key to the work's lyrical heart in its long, often angular but always expressive lines, and he makes a persuasive case for the music's high quality. Kempe's understanding and support is crucial in holding the half-hour-long work together, and he elicits a surprisingly tight accompaniment from musicians who are unlikely to be familiar with the music. Captured in dim but honest sound, this disc will hold the sympathetic listener's attention from start to finish.