HINDEMITH: Das Marienleben (original 1923 version) / Juliane Banse, sop; Martin Helmchen, pno / Alpha 398
Having given a glowing review to Rachel Harnisch’s recording of the 1948 revised version of Hindemith’s ever-popular song cycle Das Marienleben, I was curious to hear how Juliane Banse, one of my favorite sopranos, would handle the original 1923 version.
What I heard was a complete surprise. Banse, who I’ve long admired for her vocal control and musical phrasing, sings here with the kind of depth in interpretation I haven’t heard from her before; in fact, I would put this performance on a par with the kind of interpretations one heard from such great lieder singers as Elena Gerhardt, Christa Ludwig and Marjana Lipovšek.
If one notes that the three singers I mentioned above were all mezzo-sopranos, this was yet another shock for me. Banse’s voice has become deeper and richer with time; she vacillates between soprano and mezzo singing throughout this cycle, and prior to hearing it I would never have suspected that she had this quality in her voice. Moreover, her accompanist, Martin Helmchen, has a more fluid approach to the music, imbuing a legato flow to the music that Harnisch’s accompanist sometimes missed. The combination of their approach gives the music a deeper, more reflective quality, tying the music closer to the songs of Brahms than one might otherwise expect. Following the text, one notes that every word and phrase is given a deeply-felt, poetic reading. In a song such as “Die Darstellung Maria im Tempel”—a much longer version here than in the 1948 revision—Banse is downright dramatic, opening up her voice with surprising power, and in “Maria Verkündigung” she sings with breathless anticipation.
As one continues through the cycle, one is continually amazed at Banse’s ability to shift emotions and, with them, her shading and coloring of her voice. This is almost a master class in lieder singing; every note and phrase means something, and is different from every other note and phrase. In their capable hands, the music comes alive in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible prior to hearing this performance. She reaches the depths of feeling in “Vor der Passion” and “Pietà,” as well she should. In the latter, Banse’s very first note is attacked ppp, then slowly opens up like a bud into a flower via a slow crescendo. This is astonishing singing, and it is more than just showing off her technique. It is meaningful singing, rather impressive considering that the text is based on a fantasy image of the life of Mary, the mother of Christ.
This is clearly the benchmark performance of this song cycle; I can’t imagine that it has many competitors as strong in both vocal management and interpretation.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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