Hindemith’s “Das Marienleben” in a Great New Recording

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HINDEMITH: Das Marienleben / Rachel Harnisch, soprano; Jan Philip Schulze, pianist / Naxos 8.573423

Paul Hindemith’s song cycle Das Marienleben or The Life of Mary was considered, even by the composer himself, as possibly the best work he had ever written…quite an accomplishment in an oeuvre that includes his seven string quartets and the operatic masterpiece Mathis der Maler. But although he was initially very proud of the original 1923 version, he later became somewhat dissatisfied because he felt the vocal line was not quite as well related to the text or the piano part, so a quarter-century later, while living in America, he reworked the cycle into what he considered its definitive form.

This 1948 edition is the one recorded here, although a little poking around the Internet has turned up a number of recordings of both versions, including a double-CD set on Koch International Classics in which soprano Judith Kellock performs both. Probably the most famous, or at least well-publicized, version of the earlier version is the Columbia/CBS recording by soprano Roxolana Roslak and pianist Glenn Gould. But the point I am making is that there are many fine recordings of this cycle in both incarnations.

I won’t pretend that pianist Schulze—or almost any other pianist in any recording of this cycle—comes close to the remarkable style that Gould exhibited in his recording. Few, if any, pianists played with the kind of X-ray clarity that Gould did, in which ever finger strike on the keyboard seemed to have equal force and thus equal expression. Jan Philip Schulze plays with a lovely, somewhat soft quality, coaxing rather than commanding the notes under his fingers. But in addition to the musical changes Hindemith made in the score, this performance is much brisker, taking only 65 minutes to Gould’s 79, and this tighter binding of the music results in a much more dynamic performance. An excellent example is the second song, “Die Darstellung Mariä im Tempel,” in which the duo of Roslak and Gould walk through it at a measured pace whereas Harnisch and Schulze give a much more dynamic and dramatically inflected reading.

Both singers, incidentally, had/have fine voices of different types. Roslak’s voice was very bright in timbre with a pleasant but noticeable flicker-vibrato. Harnisch’s voice also has a natural vibrancy, but she can control it better, sometimes letting it ride on the breath and sometimes draining the voice of vibrato for interpretive effect. Her voice is also creamier in quality than Roslak’s. Some of the impact of the two recordings is also due to the sound quality. As usual, Gould demanded a crisp, clean sound with minimal room sound around him and the singer, whereas the present recording has rather more reverb. This, as I’ve pointed out many times in the course of my reviewing, is a modern-day fetish that most classical listeners apparently like and approve of, but which I find detrimental to my enjoyment of almost any kind of music. Nonetheless, one cannot punish the artists or the high quality of their interpretation for the engineering.

As mentioned earlier, there are several fine recordings of this song cycle available, yet oddly the two most highly praised versions are by sopranos with edgy and rather unattractive voices, Maya Boog on CPO and Soile Isokoski on Ondine. Harnisch is clearly their equal as an interpreter—listen to the quicksilver changes of mood and inflection in the rapid song “Rast auf der Flucht nach Ägypten”—and has a much more beautiful voice than either. I slightly prefer Marita Viitasolo’s pianism in the Ondine recording, which is almost as clear and pungent as Gould’s, but again, this might be due to the clearer, less goopy sonics on the earlier disc. Schulze is clearly an excellent pianist, and he plays very well in this performance, but his instrument’s sound is too recessed at times.

My own personal proclivity is towards soprano Cato Brink and pianist Maria Bergmann (SWR Music 10327) as the best of the 1923 versions and this recording as the best of the 1948 revisions. Some critics feel that Hindemith’s later revisions of his earlier works were somewhat misguided, and that the original version of this song cycle had some very good things in it that were lost in his desire to “unify” the music more strongly. One could spend some time enumerating all the changes, most of which are explained in Paul Conway’s excellent liner notes. Entirely new versions were written of No. 3, “Mariä Verkündigung,” and No. 7, “Geburt Christi” (The Birth of Christ), the rest undergoing smaller changes except for No. 12, The Calming of Mary with the Resurrected One, which remained the same. One such revision came in the sixth song, “Verkündigung über die Hirten” (Annunciation of the Shepherds), where Hindemith made the final section “majestic and celebratory, anticipating the events of the next song.”

One of the most difficult songs, No. 9 “Von der Hochzeit zu Kana,” contains several dissonances and huge vocal leaps. Harnisch sings them as if they were in the middle of her voice and not difficult at all. She possesses the kind of technique and command of legato that was once a hallmark of singers of the so-called “Golden Age,” the period between 1900 and 1928 when great singers of all rangers proliferated with just such virtues. In addition to all her vocal gifts, she also has fine, clear diction, in my view a prerequisite for a truly great singer. This, then, is a truly great recording, possibly a new benchmark for this sometimes underrated cycle.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Hindemith’s “Das Marienleben” in a Great New Recording

  1. Nicholas Deutsch says:

    Thank you for a clear and helpful review. One correction: Hindemith actually began work on the revision of ‘Das Marienleben’ in the 1930s, and in 1939 orchestrated four of the songs (#1, #5, #7 & #8) in the ‘new’ version. The complete voice-piano score of the revised version was published in 1948. In 1959, Hindemith orchestrated two further songs (#10 & #15), thus completing a mini-version of the cycle for soprano and orchestra. This has been recorded at least twice (by Karita Mattila and Ruth Ziesak). Thank you. 🙂

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