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Soile Isokoski [Photo: Heikki Tuuli 2007]
12 Nov 2009

Hindemith’s Das Marienleben — Soile Isokoski

Hindemith’s Das Marienleben has a formidable reputation, but is rarely heard. Soile Isokoski could change all that. This cycle is a tour de force, but tours de force need singers capable of achieving them.

Paul Hindemith: Das Marienleben

Soile Isokoski (soprano), Marita Viitasalo (piano), Wigmore Hall, London.

Above: Soile Isokoski [Photo: Heikki Tuuli 2007]


Das Marienleben needs an absolutely top-notch singer to do it justice. Glenn Gould championed the work but in many ways also stymied its reception because he underestimated the vocal pert. Soile Isokoski is the first really big-name singer to make it part of her regular repertoire, and to record it since Gundula Janowitz 20 years ago. She sings with such fervent sincerity, that the cycle becomes a statement of the soul, as well as a great work of art.

Sensucht lies heavily on Das Marienleben: Instead of writing about Jesus, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems focused on Mary. Her life may have been lived in the background,but her presence was crucial to the narrative of momentous events in the New Testament. Rilke’s poems bring out the human behind the divine, and are all the more moving for that. At the Wigmore Hall, Isokoski performed the 1948 version, in which Hindemith invested much time and effort. He was inspired by the Stuppach Madonna, painted by Martin Grünewald around 1518, when Europe was on the threshold of the upheaval of the Reformation. When Hindemith himself was forced into exile, the irony may not have been missed. He invested a great deal of time and effort in the 1948 revision, partly because of music theory, but also because he cared about the work. So much for the idea that musical “objectivity” precludes deep emotion.

This emotional commitment was the secret of Isokoski’s performance. She believes in it sincerely and communicates her love for the work and the ideas it represents. Hers is one of the loveliest voices around. She’s exquisite in Mozart and Strauss. She’ll be singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House in December. Despite her megastar status, Isokoski has always sung music she cares about, even if it’s not commercially viable, which is more than can be said about some of her rivals in opera! Obviously she sings Sibelius perfectly, but it was she who showed how interesting other Finnish composers, like Sallinen, Madetoja, and Merikanto can be. She created the market. Her recordings of Finnish hymns weren’t made for glamour, but because they’re dear to her heart.

Das Marienleben is much like Messiaen’s Vingt Régards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, not simply because of the subject, but because it unfolds contemplatively. The very first song, Geburt Mariã, was inspired by a passacaglia by Biber about the Resurrection, so the whole cycle is, in a sense, built around it. The beautiful first notes on the piano flow through the cycle, reminding us of the ultimate purpose of Maria’s life. The piano is reverential, but the voice soars with suppressed excitement at the miracle to come. Rilke’s texts are lovely, but wordy, so there’s no chance for easy strophic setting. Instead Hindemith makes a virtue of the long, flowing lines, often using breaks within the written line, rather than at the end, to create a sense of fluid movement.

Mariae Verkündigung describes the Annunciation. It starts with the same reverential pace that began the cycle, but grows to a crescendo of agitation when Maria realizes what the angel means. Then the calm figures return, and Isokoski blooms with confidence, “Dann sang der Engel seine Melodie”.

The more distinctive songs aren’t the obvious ones like Geburt Christi but those where Maria faces challenges, as in Rast auf der Flucht in Ägyptien, Vor der Passion and Pietà. Theologically, these are key moments, but Isokoski also makes them feel intimate and human. Her voice is naturally pure and lucid, but she colours her words with genuine emotion, to express the depths of Maria’s personality.When Jesus turns water into wine, Maria rejoices, but her tears of joy will soon turn to blood. Isokoski illustrated the words “Blut geworden war mit deisem Wein” sensitively, “geworden” curling on itself, “diesem” and “Wein” stretching outwards towards what is to come.

The pain of Vor der Passion and Pietà gives way to tender reconciliation when Maria meets the Risen Christ. Now, her destiny is fulfilled, so the three final songs form a sort of inner trilogy which rounds out the cycle. Some wonderful moments here, when Maria, alone, faces “O Ursprung namenloser Tränen-Bäche”. These vowels were sung with huge, open-hearted affirmation.

When Maria dies, Rilke describes her passing “wie ein Lavenderlkissen eine Weile da hineingeliegt,” (like a lavender pillow that leaves its scent even when it’s taken away). Hence the confident, bright key of the final song, Vom Tode Mariä III, and the adamant ostinato in the piano at the end. “Mann, knie ihn, und sie mir nachund sing!”. Maria’s body is dead but her soul triumphs.

Because Das Marienleben isn’t famiiar, most of the Wigmore Hall audience had their noses buried in the text, rather than listening. But as my friend commented, “it’s not like we don’t know the story”. Isokoski’s German is excellent, and easy to follow although the way the words are set on the page in Wigmore Hall format, it wasn’t easy to find your place in the middle of lines if you’d been listening and needed to look back. Also it’s a long cycle, and some of the songs are six or seven minutes. It was a good idea to pause after the birth of Jesus, and to darken the hall between his death and resurrection, because it gave helpful structure, to the performance, which reflects the structure in the music. Nonetheless the audience wasn’t as attentive as they could have been, which quite spoiled the mood of hushed mystery. Performance is interactive, and Isokoski may have picked up on the lack of attention.

Isokoski and Viitasalo have recorded Das Marienleben for Ondine Records. It’s magnificent, even better than the live recital, and will become the benchmark as it’s so far ahead of any competition. Unfortunately the translation used in the CD booklet was made in 1923, and is horribly mawkish. The translation used at the Wigmore Hall was by Richard Stokes, much more lucid and closer to Rilke’s style.

Anne Ozorio

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