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.]

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