Paul Hindemith’s life falls neatly into two sections, delineated by his emigration in 1940 from Germany to the USA, and the history of Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary) has its roots in both parts.
A setting of 15 poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, it was first composed in 19221923, before the start of Hindemith’s uneasy relationship with the Nazis.
The cycle then underwent a thorough (though intermittent) revision tantamount to a recomposition between 1935 and 1948.
Whereas the first version was the work of a young man in his twenties, exploring new avenues in composition blazed by Schoenberg’s forays into serialism and Stravinsky’s early neo-Classical works, the second came about as a result of Hindemith’s reassessment of his approach to traditional tonality, and is notable for the fixed tonal centres he assigned to various characters and concepts throughout the cycle.
Both versions have their supporters Glenn Gould was a staunch advocate of the original but it is the later revision that is more performed today, including by Soile Isokoski and Marita Viitasalo, who have also recently committed it to disc.
A distinguished Mozart and Strauss singer, Isokoski has a purity of tone and silvery sound which suits the smoother vocal lines of the 1948 version of the cycle though Hindemith’s writing is seldom straightforwardly homophonic, the precision of Isokoski’s voice meant that the melodic line was never obscured.
From my position in the hall there were some balance problems during the earlier songs standing right in front of a fully open Steinway, Isokoski seemed overwhelmed at times when the piano part moved into her register. But the words were always audible, even if the tone was not, and there was never a sense of less than 100% immersion in Rilke’s often abstruse poetry.
The cycle was performed without an interval, so to break up the narrative and mark poignant moments in the story, Isokoski and Viitasalo introduced pauses at certain points (before the birth of Christ, and after the Crucifixion) and dimmed the lights of the hall before the extended Passion sequence.
Isokoski’s singing also took on darker hues towards the end of the cycle: the last three songs are all entitled ‘Vom Tode Maria’ (On the death of Mary), and tell of her withdrawal from earthly life and assumption into heaven. The singing remained as radiant as in the earlier songs, only now with a focused intensity that had the audience hooked on every word and musical nuance.
As the final notes of the last song faded into the hall, there was a murmur of curiosity and approval from the Wigmore faithful. Das Marienleben may not be the most easy cycle to appreciate, making strong intellectual and musical demands of a listener, but it rewards careful attention and repeated listening, particularly when performed with such lan and commitment as Isokoski and Viitasalo, who looked genuinely surprised and moved by the warmth of the applause. Not for nothing did Glenn Gould call Das Marienleben ‘the greatest song cycle ever written’ and after hearing this performance, it would be hard to disagree.