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Paul HINDEMITH (1890–1963)
Das Marienleben, op.27 (1948 version)
Elisabeth Meyer–Topsøe (soprano), Per Salo (piano)
rec. 11–16 June 2008, Mantziusgaarden, Birkerød, Denmark DDD
Experience Classicsonline

Das Marienleben
is, I have no doubt, one of the great song-cycles of the 20th century. It is a truly astonishing piece of work: fifteen songs, setting words by Rilke. It was written as recently as 1912 and charts the life of the Virgin Mary. Hindemith first set the texts as a cycle in 1922/1923 and almost immediately set about making a revised, simpler, version which he published in 1948. This is the version recorded here. For me, the original version is the better of the two, showing, as it does, Hindemith’s thoughts in a raw state, full of passion, expressionistic flair. There’s an overwhelming urgency to the music, not to mention a keyboard part to tax even the greatest virtuoso. That Glenn Gould recorded the earlier score, with Roxolana Roslak (Sony Classical SM2K 52674 – 2 CDs) is proof of this demand of keyboard excellence. The later score is easier on the ear. Some of the angularity of the music has been removed and the corners are more rounded. It is a more mature, and restrained, look at the story. Might I here mention that in the 1960s the BBC broadcast a complete performance of the original score sung by the great Heather Harper with, if I remember correctly, Paul Hamburger. That performance is still in the BBC archive and is surely a candidate for re–issue on BBC Legends if only for the chance to hear such magnificent singing. 

But what of this performance? Elisabeth Meyer–Topsøe is the possessor of a big, fruity, mature operatic voice. She studied privately with Birgit Nilsson and has sung Wagner and Strauss, amongst others. She has worked at both the Nürnberg Opera and the Deutsche Oper, Berlin – and here lies the problem. Das Marienleben covers the whole of the Virgin’s life, starting with Geburt Maria (Maria’s birth) –

“How difficult it must have been for the angels…
when yet they knew: this night the boy’s
mother shall be born,”

through Mariae Heimsuchung (Maria’s Visitation) –

“…her own fertility was spread out around her;
when she walked she felt: never would the greatness
which she was now perceiving be exceeded.”

and the impassioned outpouring of Pièta

“Now my misery is complete and without a name
it fills me. I stiffen as the interior
of a stone stiffens.” 

To the final three songs, Vom Tode Maria (On Maria’s death) – 

“…If you want to know
where she is who moves your heart:
See: like a pillow of lavenders
she was laid in there for a short while,” 

A vast repertoire of vocal and tonal variety and control is essential to convey the full story from infancy to death.

Meyer–Topsøe sings the songs well. She obviously understands, and has a real feeling for, the workings of the music. However, she sings each song in the same way – with a full voice, free vibrato and little subtlety. In the opening songs, which require a great deal of wide–eyed, childlike innocence, such as is required in Finzi’s great song cycle Dies Natalis, any sense of wonder is entirely missing because of the vocal production, which is big and operatic. These fragile flowers require a much more delicate approach. There is no awe in the impending arrival of the Mother of the Son of God. The wide and heavy adult vibrato, which verges on the very edge of uncontrolled wobble, becomes irritating very quickly. By the time I reached Pièta, the eleventh song – which is surely one of Hindemith’s most deeply felt musical utterances – I’d really had enough of this kind of singing. Strangely though, in the following song Stillung Maria mit dem Auferstandenen (Mary’s Consolation with the Resurrected Christ) there is a restrained and quite thoughtful use of the voice, which would have been welcome at the start.

Lieder singing is a very special art. Just because you can sing opera doesn’t necessarily mean you can sing lieder and vice versa. Indeed there are many opera singers who simply cannot, whether they would admit it or not, perform lieder with any degree of satisfaction, or even competence. Unfortunately these days singers seem to see opera as the only vocal art. The pressure on the voice when trying to project over an orchestra, especially a large band, can quickly do damage to the instrument. Uncontrollable wobble has taken the place of subtle vibrato which, when used correctly, can create a most beautiful sound. Unfortunately this is the kind of singing we encounter so often today and it is this kind of singing which, for me, spoils this performance; the vocal line is corrupted by poor vocal control. 

Per Salo is a wonderful pianist and his contribution is marvellous and well worth hearing. The booklet contains very good notes and the text with both English and Danish translations. The recording is exemplary.

Bob Briggs

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf


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