United Kingdom Hindemith: Das Marienleben: Der-Shin Hwang (soprano), James D’Angelo (piano), Three Choirs Festival, Blackfriars Priory, Gloucester, 31.7.2013 (RD)
The composition of Paul Hindemith’s song cycle Das Marienleben exercised the composer for a quarter of a century. Perhaps the times influenced his take on it. He began it in 1923 in a cash-strapped but optimistic Weimar Germany, returned to it in the mid-Hitler years, and only brought it to completion and publication in 1948, when an Iron Curtain loomed and the DDR had hived off Germany’s Eastern provinces.
Hindemith’s obsession with creating a satisfying extended structure here – not that that does not inform all his endlessly exploratory works, from organ sonatas to full-blown Gebrauchsmusik concerti – must have much to do with his deference to Rilke. The poetic master-craftsman had conceived his reflection on the life of the Virgin and Birth of Jesus in another, pre-Weimar artistic heyday, 1913, as world war threatened to engulf Europe and negate (as Wilfred Owen was to point out) everything the infant Christ stood for.
A Rilke cycle is by definition a major philosophic statement, and for the Three Choirs Festival, held this year in Gloucester under Adrian Partington’s artistic direction (and its new General Manager, Dominic Jewel, who succeeded Paul Hedley earlier this year) to programme it as a nod to the 50th anniversary of Hindemith’s death (1963) was a bold and fruitful decision.
You almost never get to hear this work. It begins almost like Schoenberg – albeit benign Schoenberg – and its musical unfolding confirms, intermittently, just how significant Hindemith was in the avant-garde of his own era, the Donaueschingen years. Indeed the notes (by American accompanist and translator James D’Angelo) helpfully recall that it originated at the time of three of Hindemith’s most vitriol-filled short operas, including the Kokoschka-based Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen and the ultra-expressionistic Sancta Susanna.
The ingredients, with his skill in exploring toccata, passacaglia, contrapuntal weavings as fine as Shostakovich in Bachian mode – sometimes in just two parts, like the slimmest contrary motion – and elaborated instrumental intermezzi, amount to – what? A kind of extended Baroque suite? That elusive and imaginative form, the free Fantasia? Or a motley medley, but tied by the tightest unseen strings.
To hold the attention, or to get across the almost incessant internalised reflections and often almost medievally concealed implications of this shimmering musical sequence, does require major performers.
What D’Angelo and the Taiwanese soprano Der-Shin Hwang brought was an intimacy, a delicacy, an undoubted sensitivity. There is a gentleness in her diction, or manner of enunciation – praised specifically in Opera magazine at her performance of the ravaged Lucretia – that seems, at a glance, wholly apt for the young Mary. As with her wildly enthused-about Suzuki in Butterfly, we were touched. And she looked fabulous, in a kind of Tudor- (or pre-Tudor)-looking robe of crimson scarlet and gold.
Here, in these obliquely-shifting lines, was mystery, and symbolism, galore. ‘A doe, catching glimpse of her, was so enchanted that, without joining with its mate, it conceived the unicorn….’ Or situation comedy, mixed with poignancy: the ‘glum’ Joseph murmuring, ‘How has she become this way?…Then Joseph slowly pushed away his heavy cap; and he sang praise.’
But it was not, I fear, enough. On this showing alone, it would seem inconceivable Der-Shin Hwang has also proved a mischievous Despina (though doubtless a scurrying one) in Cosi; or an acclaimed, swash-buckling Orlovsky in Fledermaus.
Here, shyness ruled all. Despite her accolades (above) for enunciation, Hwang’s command of consonants seemed frankly desultory. Lines that, even in D’Angelo’s very cultured and rather appetising, Rilke-sensitive English translation should have had something of the impact of the original: the tender ‘Diese, die noch eben atemlos flohen mitten aus dem Kindermorden. Mein ganzes Wesen brennt’, or the stirring ‘und strahlt so stark und ist so ungeheuer voll Licht, daß mir das tiefe Firmament nicht mehr genügt’ – lines with, breathing through them at times, the same kind of passion as Rilke’s explosive, symbolic Duino Elegies (‘As these humble souls in this great land approached the mighty temples, all the idols, as if betrayed, split asunder’ could be from the latter) simply evanesced in a wish-wash of not particularly well-defined vowels.
It was unfortunate, perhaps, that the immensely efficient and well-coordinated Three Choirs Festival administrative team – as much as marvel as the music itself – had not quite yet made its key, inspired decision to reorientate the new, newly refurbished and atmospherically exhilarating – Blackfriars venue onto a fresh north-south axis, placing the rostrum in the centre: a decision made after multifarious problems affected the first half of Roderick Williams’ recital earlier in the week.
The move is a triumph, generating real intimacy for chamber events (such as the reduced Corelli Orchestra’s superb Bach and his contemporaries event) and a feeling of access and specialness in song recitals, as evidenced in Robert Murray’s concert (replacing an indisposed Andrew Kennedy on Friday 2nd August.
But Hwang and D’Angelo were unable to benefit from this, with Hwang performing at the eastward end of the great hall (as it has now become) at a distance from many of the audience.
Rilke, let alone Hindemith’s tender, seemingly wandering but in fact surprisingly taut, treatment of him needed better than this. You have to hang on every word, feel every musical nuance and nudge, or else it may become just long and boring (as it does not on Soile Isokoski’s recommended recording, Ondine ODE 11482, and indeed other perfectly acceptable versions). True, we had the English (not, sadly, the German) text, but not always to useful advantage, the enunciation being elusive and pallid.
Here, as the singer flailed like a touching sparrow (more Butterfly than Suzuki), one felt it was a noble effort to not too much avail.