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Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Mahler
17 Aug 2008

HINDEMITH: Mathis der Mahler

Premiered in 1938 in Zurich, Mathis der Maler was then the most recent of Paul Hindemith’s provocative operas.

Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Mahler

Falk Struckmann, Scott MacAllister, Susan Anthony, Inga Kalna, Pär Lindskog, Chor der Staatsoper Hamburg, Philharmoniker Hamburg, Simone Young (cond.)

Oehms Classics OC 908 [3CDs]

$33.99  Click to buy

Drawing on the tradition of operas on historic topics, the composer used the opportunity to recount the story of the sixteenth-century century painter Matthias Grünewald, best known today for his altarpieces at Isenheim, whose was caught up in the Peasants’ War to serve as a commentary on the contemporary situation in Nazi Germany. Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler has come to be regarded as a modern parable about the plight of the artist in the midst of social unrest and political restrictions. As pointed out in Wilhelm Sinkovicz’s notes about the opera that accompany this recording, in Mathis der Maler Hindemith violated some of the principles of music composition that the Nazi regime had already legislated for the Reich and thus, by extension, set himself up for the same kind of criticism as the protagonist of the work. Not a roman a clef or any sort of thinly disguised autobiography, the opera serves a dual purpose in portraying the story found in the libretto and also in serving as a kind of socio-political commentary that would not be lost on the censors.
Within the seven-scene structure of Mathis der Maler, Hindemith used instrumental interludes at various points to show Grünewald working on various paintings in his career. In fact, it is these interludes that are the basis for the symphony that Hindemith composed from this opera, and which may be the best-known version of the work. The interludes serve as anchoring points that underscore the calling of the protagonist as a painter of sacred images, and thus an individual whose career requires the imprimatur, as it were, from the religious establishment. In the opening of the opera Grünewald’s work on a large fresco causes him to question his efforts, and the palpable response comes from the peasants’ leader Schwalb and his daughter Regina finding sanctuary in the monastery church in Mainz where Mathis is working. The question of pursuing the arts versus a career of action emerges, but in the ensuing intrusion of the army puts the monks at risk for harboring Schwalb. Mathis intervenes at the threat of later revenge from Schaumburg. In the second scene of the act, Mathis is similarly compromised by the attraction of a young woman to whom the local Cardinal is enamored. The situation is further complicated by financial concerns that involve the burger Riedinger, and Mathis renounces religious patronage to pursue work in the secular venue. Mathis witnesses the struggles between the Papists and Lutheran which, in turn, involve the struggle between the peasants and the wealthy. Caught between various loyalties, Mathis feels the strife to find refuge in another city, Köngishofen and is disaffected by the cruelty of the peasants’ army. Mathis finds solace with Regina, with whom he flees to the mountains and away from the political strife their personal allegiances had taken them. Eventually Mathis is rescued from his flight by the aristocrat Albrecht von Brandenburg and given the opportunity to work. Along the way, Mathis has lost Regina and almost everyone who has been close to him. Despite the promises of Albrecht, Mathis takes up a few belongs to leave the refuge that would have provided him physical security as the opera ends.

The opera is epic in conception and this recording, derived from live performances at the Staatsoper, Hamburg, would benefit from the inclusion of the full libretto or, at least, access to a version to download from the Oehms’ website. The text would assist the listener in following the exchanges between various characters and to follow the details in the dialogue that provide the basis for the score. While the details plot summary is keyed to the various bands of the recording, it is not a substitute for the libretto or, ideally, the score, which deserves attention for the various details that emerge from attention to its own details.

This recording makes available a modern performance of the work, which had been available on CD through one previously issued recording, the one led by Rafael Kubelik in 1977 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. While the latter is a studio recording, the Oehms CD presents a live performance, and that lends a sense of intensity to this important twentieth-century opera. As the title character the fine German baritone Falk Struckmann offers an impressive portrayal of Matthias Grünewald. Setting the tone for the plight of his character, the opening aria “Sonniges Land” in the first scene is impassioned, yet well articulated. It is characteristic of this performance, which contains an appropriate decorum to convey the full import of the music. His characterization is subtle and effective, with a fine sense of the drama that must emerge in the final scenes of this powerful work.

Throughout the orchestra supports the vocal lines without getting in its way. Yet when the music must shift the mood, as with Schwalb’s entrance that follows “Aufmachen! Helft us!”, it resembles the kind of give-and-take with orchestral balance that is essential to some of Puccini’s scores. Schwalb’s aria “Was redest du da?” is equally pointed, with Pår Lindskog sounding forceful, but never stressed. The affect associated with some of the tenor roles of Verismo receives a different treatment in Hindemith’s hands, where the character is required to perform some intensively declamatory lines in the register that is sometimes used for more lyric expression.

As Regina, Inga Kalna’s clear soprano sound is welcome, and she blends well with Schwalb to keep in character and propel the text. The other prominent female voice, that of Ursula, portrayed by Susan Anthony, stands out for ringing tone and fine sound. She lends nuance to the aria “Was bin ich anderes in dieser Männerwelt?” a piece that offers a commentary on the role of women, and anticipates, in a sense, the resignation that eventually becomes Mathis’s response to the conflicts presented in this work.

The choral scenes are demonstrate the kind of precision that makes this work effective, with the opening of the third scene capturing the spirited discourse of the Lutherans before the book-burning. The choral shadings lend depth to the color, as this scene contrasts the more solo-vocal writing earlier in the work. In a sense the chorus paints the scene in this work in much the same way as it does in Cardillac, Hindemith’s opera based on the famous E. T. A. Hoffmann story. Choral writing like this deserves the careful attention to detail that is part of Simone Young’s performance.

All in all, the sound quality is admirable, with the atmosphere prelude, the “Engelkonzert” both performed and recorded with appropriate finesse. Familiar music from the symphony that takes its name from the opera, the movement has its challenges in balance, which Simone Young meets well. Her approach to the score is compelling for its fine pacing and energy.

The music is impassioned, and with a work like Mathis der Maler it is important to see the work on stage. This recording offers some perspectives of an important new production of the opera, but it would be served better by presentation on DVD so that the full impact of this important but seldom-performed work can be apprehended more easily. Lacking that, this recording would benefit from the inclusion of the full libretto, so that those interested in the work can follow the intricate text. For the production at hand, though, the recording has much to offer and represents Hindemith’s score well. An opera of ideas, as well as a compelling depiction of the life of an artist in a time of conflict, Mathis der Maler is a work that should resonate with modern audiences as much as it did in Hindemith’s own time, and this recording demonstrates the durability of the opera, which deserves to be heard more frequently.

James L. Zychowicz

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