Mark Glanville cites Schubert’s Die Winterreise not only as one of the finest song cycles ever written, but as music which eased his troubled teenage years then inspired him to become a singer himself. Some years later, as a professional but somewhat disillusioned performer, he began to experiment by introducing Yiddish and Hebrew songs into his recitals, and “rediscovered the joy” that had lead him to study singing in the first place. Devised by Glanville with new piano arrangements by Alexander Knapp, A Yiddish Winterreise (premiered in 2007) was born of this marriage of two ancestries: on one side German romantic poetry and lieder for voice and piano; on the other the Yiddish language and traditional Jewish music. Subtitled A Holocaust survivor’s inner journey told through Yiddish song, the twenty-four loosely connected songs imagine Schubert’s lover-poet as a Yiddish wedding singer, or ‘badkhn’, beginning with an unaccompanied wedding song “Khosn bazingns” (notated as sung by Mayer Bogdanski), and finishing with “Kaddish” (mourner’s prayer) in traditional Ashkenazi cantorial mode. Texts from a variety of sources are chosen to suggest an emotional journey, as the wedding singer leaves home after the death of his child, and witnesses the destruction of his Vilna home and culture. Although overall of a tragic cast, and deeply emotive, the poems touch on many subjects: innocent childhood and lonely old age, unrequited love, feasting and dancing, exile and bereavement. One song, however, forms a particular node of connection between Schubert’s cycle and Glanville and Knapp’s: “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree), musically unchanged but with text translated into Yiddish, appearing here as “Di Lipe”.

Alexander Knapp has made it clear that, unlike certain Western composers who have appropriated aspects of their countries’ folk music, here “the original melody is, in every case, respected for its natural beauty and authenticity, and is not in any need of ‘improvement’ ”. An expert scholar and lecturer on Jewish music, as well as performer, composer and arranger, Knapp’s piano parts for the nine songs he arranged are masterly in stylistic judgement (and also excellent were the four arranged by Janot Roskin). The music is based either in familiar minor keys or minor modes (apart from one in the major – the Schubert!), but employing extra touches of characteristic colour such as flattened seconds and fifths, or Neapolitan Sixth cadences, and with even the ‘jollier’ songs having a certain mournful quality. Most of the vocal melodies being simple and unaffected in form, the piano has great freedom to play with a variety of textures and styles, such as using sparse bell-like octaves to punctuate the sadly repeated “unser shtetl brent” (our village is burning) in “S’brent” (It’s burning), adopting a klezmer feel for “Der rebe hot geheysen freylekh zany” (The rabbi has told us to be merry), or imitating the tremolo of the balalaika in “Tumbalalayke” (Play balalaika) and the hammering of the cimbalom in “Az der rebe Elimelekh” (When Rabbi Elimelech), in which the third verse becomes something of a piano fantasia. Although the harmonies used are distinctly different from those of the 19th Century classical norm, the forms and structures of piano accompaniment might easily have been employed by Schubert himself, and for me, this perfect cultural marriage was a particularly key feature in A Yiddish Winterreise’s success as a work.

Of course, the quality of composition in a piece of music and the quality of a single performance of it are usually two quite different issues. However, in this case, the two performers were so personally involved in the work that it is actually quite difficult to separate them. Glanville gave a performance of great passion and sincerity, in many songs singing with intense but restrained emotion, at other times allowing his sound to swell to full power, giving each of the songs vibrant characterisation, roughening his tone at times, at one point engaging a surprisingly delicate falsetto, or using the liturgical style of the synagogue cantor. If the bass-baritone voice was placed as the centre of the sound painting, Knapp’s piano provided a detailed and many-coloured background, at the same time superbly precise and freely flowing. There was a particularly high level of emotional engagement for the audience, with a little laughter at “Hot a yid a vaybele” (A Jew has a wife), stunned silence at the harrowing “Un a yingele vet zey firn” (And a child will lead them), and not a few tears shed during the final “Kaddish”. I confess when booking tickets for this concert I was familiar with neither the performers or the material (apart from “Der Lindenbaum”); however, I left keen to hear a great deal more of them.

Glanville and Knapp have recently recorded this work for Naxos, and to those who did not make it along to the concert, I recommend it. In fact, among those who did attend the concert, a long queue formed immediately afterwards at the table where the CDs were being sold!

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

Full details of songs, with composer (where known) and arranger:

1. Trad. as sung by Maher Bogdanski: Khosn bazingns (Song for the groom)
2. Mordechai Gebirtig, arr. A. Knapp: S’brent (It’s burning)
3. Samuel Bugatch, arr. A. Knapp: A zemer (A Song)
4. Alexander Olshanetsky, arr. A. Knapp: Vilne (Vilna)
5. Mark Warshafsky, arr. A. Knapp: Oyfn Pripetshik (By the fireplace)
6. Levi Yitzchok, arr. Max Persin: Vos vet zayn az moshiach vet kumen (What will happen when the Messiah comes?)
7. Trad. arr. Janot Roskin: Der rebe hot geheysen freylekh zayn (The Rabbi has told us to be merry)
8. Abraham Goldfaden, arr. A. Knapp: Rozhinkes mit mandlen (Raisins and almonds)
9. Trad. arr. J. Roskin: Yerusholayim (Jerusalem)
10. Franz Schubert: Der Lindenbaum, sung in Yiddish as Di Lipe  (The linden tree)
11. Trad. arr. A. Knapp: Tumbalalayke (Play balalaika)
12. Mordechai Gebirtig, arr. Harry Anik: Moyshele mayn fraynd (Moyshele, my friend)
13. Morris Goldstein, arr. Jack Kammen: Hot a yid a vaybele (A Jew has a wife)
14. Abraham Budno, arr. A. Knapp: Unter dayne vayse shtern (Under your white stars)
15. Trad. arr. J. Roskin: Khatskele
16. S. Gozinsky: Habeit mishomayim (Look down from Heaven)
17. Moshe Nadir, arr. A. Knapp: Az der rebe Elimelekh (When Rabbi Elimelech)
18. Trad. arr. J. Roskin: Der zeyger (The clock)
19. M. Gebirtig, arr. J. Kammen: Kinder yorn (Childhood years)
20. M. Gebirtig, arr. A. Knapp: Kleyner yosem (Little orphan)
21. Trad. arr. A. Knapp: Un a yingele vet zey firn (And a child will lead them)
22. Lermontov, arr. J. Roskin: Shlof mayn feygele (Sleep my darling)
23. M. Gebirtig, arr. A. Knapp: A malekh vert geboyrn (An angel is born)
24. Trad: Kaddish (Mourner’s prayer)

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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.]