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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Das Marienleben, Op. 27 (1923)
Juliane Banse (soprano)
Martin Helmchen (piano)
rec. Sendersaal, Bremen, Germany, 2017
ALPHA CLASSICS 398 [70:47]

Paul Hindemith began composing his vocal masterpiece Das Marienleben, or ‘The Life of Mary’, at the end of June 1922 and did not complete the cycle of fifteen songs until July the following year, taking fifteen poems by Austrian Rainer Maria Rilke for his inspiration. This was a particularly long gestation period for the work, since Hindemith was known as a quick composer, with Hindemith stating “This was not easy to do”. The songs were not composed in order and after he had finished the final song in 1923 he wrote in the manuscript “Then he sang praise”, which is a quotation of the last line from the fifth song in the cycle, ‘Argwohn Josephs’, or Joseph’s mistrust. Soon after the premiere, Hindemith started to revise Das Marienleben, correcting what he saw as technical weaknesses in the scoring, this despite his awareness of just how important the cycle was in his own development as a composer; Hans Mersmen had described it as the “first fulfilment of new music of the 1920s”. Despite this, in 1936, he began to make more revisions, mainly to the four songs he was to orchestrate, but he didn’t stop there and soon he had extensively reworked the whole score, apart for the twelfth song; the results of the revision were published in 1948 along with an essay in which he explained why he deemed it necessary to revise the work, as well as two further orchestrations.

These two versions have led to many a discussion amongst academics and performers as to which is the authentic version. The earlier version is regarded as the more complex and difficult to perform, with Glenn Gould describing the original version as the “greatest song cycle ever written”, and it is this version that is recorded here by Juliane Banse and Martin Helmchen. I have two other versions on disc, both of which are of the 1948 revised edition of the score, the first by Annelies Kupper and Carl Seemann (CD 74612), which was recorded a few months after the pair had given the premiere performance of the revised version and as such is an important historical document, and the other by Soile Isokoski and Marita Viitasalo. I also know Roxolana Roslak and Glenn Gould’s recording of the original version from a download.

Das Marienleben is divided into four sections, with the singer needing great dexterity and timbre to portray the different emotions presented in each part. The first part deals with Mary’s time before the birth of Christ. The second part deals with Joseph’s suspicion, through to the flight into Egypt and the third part deals with the Passion through the eyes of Mary, whilst the final part are reflections on the death of Mary. Each section proves to have its own difficulties for singer and pianist alike, and I am glad to say that both Juliane Banse and Martin Helmchen pass with flying colours. Banse is a soprano used to singing challenging music and here she rises to meet the challenge and hers is the most articulate of the four versions I know well, especially in the way that she uses her instrument to colour the music – whether in impressionistic or atonal mood Hindemith wrote some very demanding music for the soprano, one reason why the work is not heard as often as it should be, but Banse makes light of the demands he posed. Hers is a performance of rare intensity throughout, something lacking in the other versions, she keeps you enthralled by the music, although the nearly seventy-year-old recording of Kupper and Seemann doesn’t help their case. Martin Helmchen is faced with some very difficult music too, and he also shows rare ability to convey this to the listener, he is faced with the same sort of challenges as Banse as well as sections of almost minimalist music where the notes are sparse yet he still manages to keep the intensity going, dare I say even surpassing the great Glenn Gould (yes I dare, as in many ways this is a superior performance).

Juliane Banse and Martin Helmchen are aided by a superior recorded sound, whilst the booklet notes by Susanne Schaal-Gotthardt are excellent and add greatly to the music, especially in the way she explains the two versions. Both versions have their advantages and disadvantages over the other, so it becomes a matter of taste as to which version you prefer, let me just say that when the performance is as good as Banse and Helmchen’s, there is clearly only one winner, with their recording being the finest of the ones I know.

Stuart Sillitoe



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