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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Mathis der Maler (1935)
Mathis: Wolfgang Koch (baritone)
Albrecht von Brandenburg: Kurt Streit (tenor)
Riedinger: Franz Grundheber (bass-baritone)
Ursula: Manuela Uhl (soprano)
Hans Schwalb: Raymond Very (tenor)
Regina: Katerina Tretyakova (soprano)
Lorenz von Pommersfelden: Martin Snell (bass)
Wolfgang Capito: Charles Reid (tenor)
Sylvester von Schaumberg: Oliver Ringelhahn (tenor)
Truchsess von Waldburg: Ben Connor (baritone)
Piper: Andrew Owens (tenor)
Countess Helfenstein: Magdalena Anna Hofmann (mezzo-soprano)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Bertrand de Billy
rec. December 2012, Theater an der Wien, Vienna
NAXOS NBD0130V Blu-Ray [190 mins]

I have long been fascinated by the similarities and the contrast between two of the most ambitious operas of early twentieth century Germany: Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina (1919) and Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1935). Both address the relationship between the creative artist and the society that surrounds him; both are set in the era of the later Renaissance, when the Protestant Reformation was transforming Europe; both contrast the spiritual realm of the composer, or the painter, with the venal and self-serving nature of the politicians who seek to exploit his work; both make use of symbolic legends associated with historical figures; both feature extended dream-sequences in which the nature of inspiration is evoked; both feature lengthy intellectual (and indeed verbose) analyses of human frailty, written by the composers themselves; and both end with the artist crushed and humbled by his experiences, yet still looking to the future with optimism and hope. Yet the contrasts between the two works are still more notable than the parallels, not least in their reception by the Nazi regime – whose favour Pfitzner so assiduously courted, but which at the same time outlawed Hindemith’s score which consequently did not achieve performance in Germany until 1946.

I have equally long been convinced that Pfitzner’s opera is an absolute masterpiece, the sheer quality of which remains unrecognised outside the German-speaking world and underestimated even within it. At the same time, I remained disappointed that Hindemith’s even more trenchant examination of the relationship between art and politics seemed in some ways to fall short of the same level of inspiration. Even the existence of the superb Kubelik 1977 recording of Mathis, which followed some three years after the conductor’s equally celebrated Palestrina, failed to convince me that Hindemith had not allowed himself to fall into the trap of attempting to treat musically, passages of debate where heavily taxed singers engaged in strenuous competition with a brutally uncompromising orchestra without a sufficient allowance of light-and-shade or anything that could potentially constitute humorous relief (which Pfitzner had thankfully permitted in his treatment of the materialistic cardinals at the Council of Trent). I therefore greeted the appearance of this video recording of a well-cast Berlin stage performance of 2012 with some considerable anticipitation; and I am delighted to say that in a very large measure this recording has to my mind both vindicated the ambitions of Hindemith’s work, and validated his approach to his subject.

Keith Warner’s operatic productions have not always seemed ideally suited to the scores he stages (as may be seen from my review of his Covent Garden Ring last year) but he never subsides into the sheer inanities of much modern European Regietheater and here he has kept a firm eye on the complicated political ramifications of the plot in which Hindemith has embroiled his reluctantly heroic protagonist. The nature of the relationships between his principal characters – the moral Mathis, seeking only to reflect through his art his perception of the world; his cardinal patron, simultaneously looking for compromise and reconciliation, even if this involves an arranged marriage to satisfy the demands of his Lutheran subjects; the leader of the peasants’ revolt, at once repelled by but forced to gratify the violence that his followers demand; the attempts at pacification by other men of power, either by the application of force or of wealth to obtain their ends; and the women, all victims of one sort or another, who are tossed to and fro between the demands of their men – all of these are closely mirrored in the staging, with its modern references (such as the burning of heretical books) emphasised by costumes that closely suggest Germany of the 1930s, but set within the framework of Mathis’s own altarpiece of Christ which is progressively torn asunder as the drama progresses. The result is imaginative and highly atmospheric, not least in the emergence of the cardinal as a hermit in the scene between Mathis and St Paul which concludes the sixth scene. And, at the same time, it provides a credible framework for interaction between the singers which underlines the emotional strength of the situations depicted.

All of this might fall flat if the singers themselves were insufficiently able to rise to the opportunities afforded them, despite the often trenchant demands on their stamina and ability to engage with some highly heroic writing. Wolfgang Koch in the title role has by far the greatest weight to bear, both musically and emotionally, and he rises to the occasion with singing that parallels that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the Kubelik CD set and often surpasses it at moments where the older singer was clearly stressed by the more explosive demands of the vocal writing. His facial expressions convey warmth and compassion, echoed with some beautifully tender phrasing. Manuela Uhl as his beloved, and the proposed spouse of the cardinal, begins slightly tremulously but soon begins to fill out her lines and rises triumphantly to her charged final scenes where she shows herself prepared to sacrifice herself for the sake of peaceful resolution. Raymond Very is superbly sympathetic as the leader of the peasants (far superior to his hectoring rival in the Kubelik set) and Katerina Tretyajkova is a model of delicacy as his persecuted daughter, with a death scene of real pathos. Indeed both of the female roles are taken here with more assurance than in the Kubelik recording. Franz Grundheber is a pillar of real strength as the Lutheran goldsmith, and the smaller roles are all taken with a good sense of character and a standard of casting that one would anticipate in Vienna. The one dubious element struck me with the employment of Kurt Streit, whom I had previously encountered as a Mozartian tenor, in the heroic role of the cardinal who is Mathis’s employer. On the Kubelik set this role had been taken by the Wagnerian heldentenor James King, who had made a gloriously full-throated impression as St Paul at the end of the sixth scene. Streit’s voice cannot rise to that level of visceral excitement, but he certainly has no problem reaching the demanding higher reaches of the role; both his diction and his acting are excellent, and he never lets the tension sag. The choral singing by the Slovak Philharmonic Choir is superb, and they even manage to make themselves heard over the surging orchestra in the climactic scene of the Temptation of St Anthony. Their costume changes from monks, to marauding peasantry, to townsfolk, to soldiers, and so on, clearly distinguished in designs by Emma Ryott, are managed with perfect adroitness; and they are nicely supplemented by some energetic dancers in devil costumes for the nightmarish temptation scene. The set design by Johan Engels, as I have already indicated, is both dramatically effective and arresting, and the lighting designs by Mark Jonathan are particularly effective during the prelude (which is fully and sympathetically staged).

There has apparently at one time been a rival version of Mathis on DVD, but even were that still available it would clearly be ruled out of court by the fact that the whole of the crucial temptation scene was jettisoned by the production in favour of the movement edited by Hindemith for his ‘symphony’ Mathis der Maler – and even if one allows that the excision might be justified on dramatic grounds (which I do not begin to concede) its omission is clearly unacceptable both in musical terms, and in removing the central thesis with which Hindemith is trying to present the modern listener. There are some small cuts in the score here, which are regrettable since it is presumably unlikely we are going to have another version available for some time; but nevertheless Bertrand de Billy gives us a glorious rendition of the music, from the luminous chords at the beginning to the excoriating climaxes later on and with a sense of repose and ecstasy that does much to illuminate the meaning of the words which is so important in an opera such as this. The subtitles are very much welcome in this context, and are provided in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean; those in English and French appear to be taken from those prepared for the Kubelik recording. The booklet provides a full track listing, an interview with the producer, and a synopsis both in German and English.

We should be most grateful to Naxos for making this recording available, even if it is nearly a decade since it was made. The performance and production finally confirm my suspicions that Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler is a work of the greatest importance, and packs more emotional weight and dramatic punch than the Kubelik audio recording might have conveyed. Indeed it raises the stature of the work closer towards its Pfitznerian rival in any argument about the role of the creative artist in an uncomprehending society. What would now make satisfaction absolutely complete would be a well-produced and cast video of Palestrina to make up the balance. But don’t hold your breath.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (DVD): Stephen Barber



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