Das Marienleben – 15 settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke [revised 1948 version]
Soile Isokoski (soprano) & Marita Viitasalo (piano)
Recorded 9-13 February 2009 in Sello Hall, Espoo, Finland
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: February 2010
CD No: ONDINE ODE 1148-2
Duration: 72 minutes
Paul Hindemith considered “Das Marienleben” (The Life of the Virgin Mary) to be one of his best works, to the extent that he virtually re-composed the first version of 1923, written when he was in the grip of astringent neo-classicism. This was young man’s music, very much of its time, but even then Hindemith was having second thoughts – in particular, he was exercised by the awkward voice part and arbitrary harmonic layout of the 70-minute cycle. He set about it in 1935, and the process lasted, on and off, until 1948, during which time he had left Germany for the United States and had worked out a new harmonic theory – Hindemith is one of the great music pedagogues of the 20th-century – as a reaction to the rigours of serialism; his system was based on the natural acoustic properties of music. The 1948 version, although setting the same text, is virtually a new work – only one setting, XII ‘Consolation of Mary with the Risen Christ’, remained unchanged – with a much greater sense of connective unity.
The pianist Glenn Gould, who thought “Das Marienleben” the greatest song-cycle ever written, preferred the original version (which he recorded with Roxolana Roslak). Soile Isokoski’s recording makes just as strong a case for the later version.
Rilke’s poems of birth-to-death scenes in the life of the Virgin Mary constantly take the reader to the point where reality hovers on the cusp of the sublime, and in extraordinary imagery – he must have had particular paintings in mind for some of the poems – expressed in fairly direct language, he manages to give us with one hand the various Marian ecstasies and with the other take away the old certainties of faith.
This is matched by Hindemith’s highly-wrought music, bristling with counterpoint and baroque structures such as fugue and passacaglia, but completely at the service of the verse’s inherent tenderness. The songs range from the lullaby opening in ‘Birth of Mary’, through the birth of Jesus, his Passion and Resurrection and the death of Mary, the last a long poem that Hindemith casts as three settings. In one of the most extraordinary songs, II ‘The Presentation of Mary in the Temple’, Rilke surreally makes Mary the vessel that contains the Temple, with Hindemith using a passacaglia of rock-like density to express Mary’s centrality to the Christian faith. A lot of the piano-writing is massive, rather like a reduction of an orchestral score (indeed, Hindemith orchestrated six of the songs, yielding a third, much shorter version), but the overall moods – of ecstasy, rapt intensity, tenderness – are very precisely placed.
Soile Isokoski’s performance is remarkable, not least for sustaining such a long work. She gives the songs a sense of accumulative power and shapes the music’s variety with an uncanny awareness of the text. Her Straussian soprano is at its impressive and commanding best – radiant and focused, the climaxes unforced – the perfect vehicle for these mystical creations. She also has a sure instinct for the voice’s unusually complicated and shifting relationship with the piano part. This is played by Isokoski’s recital partner of two decades and more, Marita Viitasalo, and her performance is no less magisterial, making Hindemith’s writing reach out and fusing it with the voice.
Ondine’s recording is warm and spacious, rather than too close, and it gives the sound an objectivity that suits the subject very well. My only complaint is about the English translations of the poems in the booklet; they were made in 1923 and are too opaque. You would be much better off with the translations in Richard Stokes’s “The Book of Lieder”.