November 2009

Paul Hindemith composed Das Marienleben in 1923 and revised it thoroughly during the years 1935-48. One of the main works emerging from what has often been termed his neoclassical period (although it could equally be termed neo-baroque), it is a setting of Rainer Maria Rilke’s set of fifteen poems on the story of the Virgin Mary. Structurally it is divided into four parts, the first dealing with Mary’s youth, prior to the birth of Christ, the second covering Joseph’s mistrust, Christ’s birth and the flight into Egypt, the third addressing Mary’s experience of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the last part meditating on her own death and assumption into Heaven.

Still something of an enigmatic figure in the history of 20th century music, Hindemith’s period as a composer (from the 1910s to the 1960s) was one during which many changes took place in the European musical landscape. His own body of work shows influences of, variously, the affective tone-painting of the preceding century’s Romantics, the compositional structures of earlier icons such as Bach, the extended harmonies of the contemporary atonal movement, and music of other genres such as ragtime and jazz. Das Marienleben occupies an interesting place within this corpus: firstly, although Hindemith did write operas, he is primarily known as an instrumental composer who only occasionally worked within the song format; secondly, the work was particularly important to Hindemith himself, who felt that it clarified his personal spiritual response to Rilke’s poems; and thirdly, because the first version was composed in the decade before, and the full revised version published in the decade after, his book The Craft of Musical Composition. Hindemith has sometimes been misidentified as an atonal composer, but in this theoretical dissertation, he presents all musical intervals as  ranked on a consonance/dissonance continuum, depending on how closely linked they are to a tonal centre, or root. Many of the songs from Das Marienleben provide a perfect example of this, within the (very traditional) harmonic format of beginning quite consonantly, developing into greater dissonance, then resolving into consonance – many songs, in fact, ending with plain, major triadic chords.

Like many listeners, the interpretation of this work with which I am most familiar is that of Glenn Gould (piano) and Roxolana Roslak. Although a very thoughtful and intellectually valid account, the tempi are on the slow side, and thus can lose momentum. This was not the case with Soile Isokoski and Marita Viitasalo; their choice of faster tempi for the livelier songs worked very well, particularly those such as ‘Verkündigung über den Hirten’ (Annunciation over the shepherds) in which the Viitasalo’s piano has an agitato feel, constantly pushing onwards, while Isokoski’s well-balanced, dark-toned soprano surfs smoothly above. The contrast was particularly effective between these and the meditative stillness of, for example, ‘Pietà’, which allowed Isokoski the chance to infuse the lower-pitched melodies with different tone colourings. The Wigmore Hall lowered their lights for the ‘Passion’ section, and raised them again for that dealing with Christ’s rising from the dead, but stage-management of this kind was unnecessary as the changes of mood were well-conveyed musically.

Isokoski and Viitasalo have been working together for many years (in fact, since their graduation from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki), and clearly have a superb rapport which, particularly at moments when the music ‘changes gear’, can appear almost telepathic. This piece is very much a duet of equals rather than songs with piano accompaniment, and Viitasalo addressed the often highly independent piano part with power and confidence to match that of Isokoski’s voice (although there were moments, such as in ‘Mariä Verkündigung’ when her use of rubato and the sustain pedal were a little heavy – something of which I am not sure Hindemith would have entirely approved). There were occasions when the dynamic balance between the two veered one way or the other, but these were few and far between. For the great part, the dynamic choices and contrasts worked as well as did the tempi; it is true that there were moments when Isokoski’s powerful high notes actually hurt my ears, but as I do have unusually sensitive hearing in the upper frequency range,  I would hesitate to suggest that she was too loud for this auditorium. Despite the great success of these two musicians’ partnership, it is interesting to note that, for this listener, some of the most gripping moments were those where either voice or piano was alone.

Isokoski has said in interview “Always the challenge is between being in total control and putting heart and soul into a song,” and “I regard every song as a miniature world that must be evoked.” (The Times, 2006-10-27) On the basis of this performance, I would say that she meets these challenges admirably.

Those that missed this concert may be interested to know that a recording of Isokoski and Viitasalo performing Das Marienleben has just been released by Ondine.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

This concert launched the London Concert Choir’s 50th anniversary season, which they chose to celebrate by devoting the first half of the concert to five choral works from the last fifty years, all unaccompanied, and were balanced in the second by old(er) favourite Carmina Burana (1937).

Walton was, in his youth, a chorister himself, so has some personal insight into composing for choirs. In this particular case, the insight appears to have been: keep it snappy so the choirboys don’t get too bored. This Missa Brevis is extremely brief; however, even if it were longer it would not bore, as the melodies, harmonies and textures sound fresh and at times, unexpected. When introducing Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, conductor Mark Forkgen used the word ‘beautiful’ three times, which suggests trying a little too hard to convince – something which is unnecessary in the case of genuinely beautiful music. Of course, beauty is in the ear of the beholder, but although worthily sung by the choir, to my ears no amount of dynamic contrast (of which there was a great deal) could save it from dullness. Tavener’s Funeral Ikos, on the other hand, infuses simple lines and sustained harmonies with glowing intensity, and it was in this third piece, contemplative as it is, that the choir really came to life, making the previous two – pleasant enough though they were – sound like a vocal warm-up in comparison. This form improved further in Whitacre’s Water Night; the choir clearly enjoyed the challenge of performing a piece full of thick tone-clusters, simultaneous suspensions and resolutions, and multiple overlaid melodic lines, as did I listening to it.  The alto section in particular produced a very solid, warm tone. The last piece of the set technically counts as both English and American music, in that Stucky’s Whispers has threaded through it fragments of Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, sung by a small group of singers set apart from the main chorus. Again, this was a gem of a performance, the Byrd fragments surfacing then submerging delicately into the perfectly-balanced tides of the larger mass of voices.

For the second half, the choir were joined by the two pianists and six percussionists required for the reduced-score version of Carmina. Although authorised by the composer, this can be quite a tricky ensemble to manage, particularly in terms of balance. Dynamically there were some issues, such as pianissimi on the pianos that came across as tentative-sounding, and fortissimi where the noisier percussion were clearly holding back due to concern about drowning out everyone else. While this is sensible and restrained, I cannot help feeling that Carmina is not and should not be a sensible restrained piece. There was also a balance issue – although the ‘fault’ of the scoring rather than the performers – between high and low, with higher pitches coming through clearly, but power in the bass register somewhat lacking (despite the best efforts of the two pianists, thumping out the octaves that begin “O Fortuna” for all they were worth). Similar dynamic and pitch issues were occurring in the chorus, due to the traditional problem of choirs regarding female/male ratio. I intend no disservice to the male singers, particularly the 1st tenors locked in heroic struggle with Orff’s punishing tessitura, but the overall effect was very top-heavy. Despite the matter of an oestrogen/testosterone imbalance, however, the singing was appropriately lusty throughout.

Soprano soloist Erica Eloff has exactly the kind of crystal-clear tone needed for this part, and some small intonational inaccuracies and early nervousness were easily forgiven in light of the displayed dynamic control in “Stetit puella”, tone colouring in “In trutina” and flexibility in “Dulcissime”. Counter-tenor Andrew Radley was employed in the small role of Dead Swan On Stick, and sounded suitably mournful; however, he sounded entirely comfortable singing his high Cs and Ds, and this is why in my opinion the part should be sung by a tenor (as in the score): it needs to be outside the comfort zone to properly convey the pain! Of the three soloists, the baritone almost certainly gets to have the most fun, and William Berger clearly enjoyed his scene-stealing antics as the drunken abbot. He put a great deal of character and vocal acting into each of his arias (although perhaps a little heavy on the lasciviousness in “Tempus est iocundum”) without ever compromising a rich, warm tone, and was highly impressive in the cadenza-esque high flights of “Dies nox et omnia”. As there were no children on stage I was hoping that this performance would replace the scored Ragazzi with adult sopranos, as is sometimes done. (It is apparently becoming more common to do this, due to parents’ and teachers’ discomfort at the idea of small children singing lines about desire, men and women’s coupling, and being burning with love.) However, there was in fact a group of children concealed up in the gallery; the antiphonal effect of this worked well, and the children’s voices were even not too unpleasant.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable concert, and I wish the London Concert Choir the best for the rest of their 50th anniversary season.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]