Hindemith: Mathis Der Maler / Young, Struckmann, Et Al

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This selection comes with a plot synopsis in German and English rather than a complete libretto.

Review - - - -


HINDEMITH Mathis der Maler Simone Young, cond; Falk Struckmann ( Mathis ); Scott McAllister ( Albrecht von Brandenburg ); Susan Anthony ( Ursula ); Inga Kalna ( Regina ); Pär Lindskog ( Hans Schwalb ); Hamburg St Op O & Ch OEHMS 908 (3 CDs: 183:16) Live: Hamburg 9/25/2005

Hindemith’s first three operas ( Murder, Hope of Women; Das Nusch-Nuschi; Sancta Susanna ) were the young radical’s (highly successful) attempts to shock the German musical establishment of the early 1920s. By 1926 he was on his way to becoming part of that establishment, and his Cardillac is a potent dramatic mix of murder and sex—just what opera does best. See a review of two performances on DVD in Fanfare 31:3. The 1929 News of the Day is a satirical farce of contemporary life and mores. It is a truly funny piece, although the joke goes on too long, but it is best remembered for shocking Adolph Hitler with a nude soprano singing an aria in her bath. The operas Hindemith came to consider as his life’s work: Mathis der Maler (1935) and Die Harmonie der Welt (1956) are serious philosophical treatises—not what opera does best. Both are lengthy, complex works requiring considerable patience and demanding strong concentration. In addition, both must compete against the powerful symphonies he built them from—in each case the symphony came to fruition first, while he was working on the opera. The Symphony “Mathis der Maler” is universally recognized as Hindemith’s masterpiece, whereas the opera is seldom performed.

Mathis is Matthias Grünewald, one of several names used by the painter of the Isenheim Altarpiece, but the opera is only incidentally about his painting. Rather it is about the artist’s place in, and conflicts with, a troubled society, subject matter that made it anathema to Nazi Germany (it was eventually premiered in Zurich in 1938). Mathis, at first content with his life as a painter, is drawn into the bloody Peasants’ War (1524–1526) between the common people and the nobility, for which Martin Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church was also a driving force. After witnessing the horrific effects of war and gross inhumanity on both sides, the old painter withdraws completely from the world (seldom has such a vast, complex plot been so over-simplified). Other major figures are Hans Schwalb, the leader of the rebels, Albrecht von Brandenburg, a surprisingly freethinking Cardinal who employs Mathis, and Ursula, who loves him. This potentially tendentious opera is rescued by its wonderful music, Hindemith at his absolute peak. The climactic scene is a vocal/choral version of The Temptation of St. Anthony , the finale of the Symphony “Mathis der Maler,” and almost everything in the opera rises to a similar level.

The only other complete recording was a 1977 performance on EMI, with Rafael Kubelík leading the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra, starring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role. Such an undertaking would seem ideal for this work, but it was not a success: the star baritone had been in far better voice when he recorded an hour’s worth of excerpts for DGG in 1962 (DG 431 741, with Cardillac ), and the rest of the cast was not up to snuff. In addition, the bustling crowd scenes—book burnings, battles, and embittered confrontations—came across as tedious and noisy rather than dramatic. To my surprise, I found a 1995 New York City Opera production to be totally gripping throughout a long evening. This new live-performance recording is marvelous, far superior to the Kubelík. My notes say “the EMI feels sluggish and formal, whereas the Oehms boils along, teeming with life.” Struckmann’s voice lacks Fischer-Dieskau’s so-easily-identifiable dramatic panache, but it is in far better estate. The rest of the cast is beyond comparison; each soloist creates a strongly individual character, and the chorus sings with fervor and clarity. Above all, the Hamburg Philharmonic is magnificent, realizing all of the music in a way that the Bavarians never did. The music and the drama are so powerful, so engrossing, that this listener was unaware of time passing. Getting up to change to CD 3, I thought, “Didn’t I just begin CD 2?” But the booklet insists that 67 minutes had passed. Kudos to Simone Young, general manager of the Hamburg State Opera and music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic! The Oehms recording is worthy of this performance; everything is heard clearly, even in multi-voiced tutti passages. Producer Dirk Lüdemann and sound engineer Dominik Blech deserve star billing as well. The only fly in the ointment is the lack of a libretto: neither the booklet nor www.oehmsclassics.de offers a link to one, and a quick Internet search was not promising. Thus you may have to keep the EMI for its complete three-language libretto.

Seventy years after its premiere, Mathis der Maler finally emerges here as one of the great operas of the 20th century. Wholeheartedly recommended to all!

FANFARE: James H. North

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: OC 908

  • UPC: 812864018158

  • Label: Oehms Classics

  • Composer: Paul Hindemith

  • Conductor: Simone Young

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Hamburg State Opera Chorus, Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Carsten Wittmoser, Falk Struckmann, Harald Stamm, Ho-Yoon Chung, Inga Kalna, Jürgen Sacher, Moritz Gogg, Pår Lindskog, Peter Galliard, Renate Spingler, Scott MacAllister, Susan Anthony