HINDEMITH Mathis der Maler • Rafael Kubelík, cond; James King (Albrecht von Brandenburg); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Mathis); Gerd Feldhoff (Lorenz); Manfred Schmidt (Wolfgang Capito); William Cochran (Hans Schwalb); Alexander Malta (Prefect of WalburgRead more class="ARIAL12">); Donald Grobe (Sylvester); Rose Wagemann (Ursula); Urszula Koszut (Regina); Trudelise Schmidt (Countess Helfenstein); Bavarian RSO & Ch • EMI 640740 (3 CDs: 182:53 & CD-ROM libretto)
It’s always difficult to review a little-known work such as this one, despite its high artistic excellence, just as it is somewhat difficult to claim it to be a “Hall of Fame” performance, but if ever a recording deserved that citation, this is it. A reviewer who shall remain nameless once said that the 2010 Oehms Classics recording conducted by Simone Young was much better than this because it had more life and more dramatic thrust, but after going out of my way to listen to that recording I was left scratching my head as to exactly what this reviewer thought was superior in it. Granted, Young conducts pretty well, but the miking in that live performance had too much “space” around the orchestra, with the result that neither the winds nor the strings had much presence, and without a good orchestral presence Mathis der Maler falls flat. Even worse, baritone Falk Struckmann as Mathis has a perfectly horrid voice: strained, wobbly, throaty, unfocused, he really just sounds as if he’s yelling a part that demands the highest sensitivity in a singing-actor.
At the time Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made this recording (1978), his voice had lost both its luster and its bottom range. I heard him in concert at Carnegie Hall a few years earlier, and although he (thankfully) hadn’t picked up a wobble and still sang with great sensitivity, the voice sounded gray and dull, nothing at all like it had sounded from the late 1940s through, say, 1971. But Mathis is a character whose many moods and dramatic changes hinge on word-painting of the type Fischer-Dieskau was a master of, and I for one am happy to have him here. Moreover, soprano Urszula Koszut (Regina) and tenors James King (Albrecht) and Donald Grobe (Sylvester) are miles above their Oehms counterparts in both vocal quality and characterization. Operatic drama isn’t all about shouting and sounding excited, particularly in a work such as this. Hindemith worked long and hard to combine his strict neo-classic style with actual German folk songs, with the result that, despite the modern harmonies and melodic lines that never really develop into “tunes,” he wrote some truly outstanding music that demands real vocalism and not just histrionic shouting, such as the Don Carlo-like friendship duet between Mathis and the peasant leader Hans Schwalb in the first tableau or the remarkable quartet (Albrecht-Mathis-Ursula-Riedinger) in the second. Thus the dramatic richness of the text is allied to great musical richness, and to give short shrift to the latter is to compromise the former.
And then there is the orchestral writing, which, as I mentioned, is as richly detailed in its own way as anything Wagner or Strauss ever wrote. This music demands a conductor who can make one hear all the varied threads of the orchestra yet keep things moving. Rafael Kubelík was such a conductor, and even as a set-piece his performance of the opera’s prelude is outstanding for its richness of color and rhythmic vitality. Mathis has what is surely one of the three or four greatest librettos in operatic history, and yet another quality I admire in all of these singers—even soprano Rose Wagemann as Ursula, whose strained top notes are something of a chore to listen to—is their outstanding diction.
For those unfamiliar with it, Mathis is the story of Matthias Grünewald, a painter who created the Isenheim Alter and other chapel artwork in the 16th century, and his involvement in the Peasants’ Revolt. What made Mathis’s position so dangerous, and provides the crux of the dramatic argument, was that he worked for Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg, who privately supported the peasants (and Mathis’s independent thinking) but publicly had to decry their position because he was too weak to break off from the Catholic Church. Hindemith uses this as well to propel his drama, since one of the things the peasants are revolting against is the stranglehold that the Church, allied with the nobles, has over their lives. The stroke of genius in Mathis is that Hindemith was able to compose a subversive opera suggesting that the people have the right to oust the rulers in power if they are oppressed by them, an allegory to the Germans under Hitler, without tying the opera too closely to the Third Reich. In this way, Mathis der Maler becomes a timeless story of revolt against oppression, whatever the stripe.
Without going too much into detail, I strongly urge any thinking listener to give this opera—and specifically this recording—a try. I guarantee you that the plot and libretto, at least, will not fail to impress you, and the singing and conducting are of such a high order that it’s almost impossible not to enjoy at least part of the music on its own terms. My sole complaint of this particular reissue is that, unlike the reissue just before it, it does not include a paper libretto or plot synopsis; rather, they are both on a “bonus” CD-ROM for delightful viewing on your PC or tablet (yeah, right … as if I’m going to read a long and highly literate libretto on my computer screen every time I listen). I recommend that you simply do what I did, which was to print them out for handy use while listening. I cannot recommend this release highly enough, and if you think I was exaggerating regarding its high quality as opposed to Falk Struckmann and company, go ahead and compare them. I think you’ll be running back to Kubelík and company before very long.
Mathis der Maler (Complete Opera)by Paul Hindemith Performer:
Trudeliese Schmidt (Mezzo Soprano),
Urszula Koszut (Soprano),
James King (Tenor),
Gerd Feldhoff (Bass),
Karl Kreille (Bass),
Manfred Schmidt (Tenor),
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone),
Peter Meven (Bass),
William Cochran (Tenor),
Alexander Malta (Bass),
Donald Grobe (Tenor),
Rose Wagemann (Mezzo Soprano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1934-1935; Germany
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Powerful, authoritativeNovember 28, 2013By Rory R. (Winnipeg, MB)See All My Reviews""Classic performance"can become a cliche, but with this unfortunately not- heard -enough piece, this performance deserves the accolade. Fischer-Dieskau's powerful interpretation of Mathis, and Kubelik's authoritative interpretation of the score are reason to hear this recording, even if the rest of the cast were not as good. Fortunately, they are. The tempation of St. Anthony scene is one the great scenes of 20th century opera, and it is doubtful if it will be more magnificently done than here."Report Abuse