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Albrecht von Brandenburg – Scott MacAllister

Mathis – Falk Struckmann
Hans Schwalb – Par Lindskog
Ursula – Susan Anthony
Regina – Inga Kalna
Philharmonic Orchestra & State Opera Chorus of Hamburg / Simone Young

OEHMS Classics – OC 908 [2005– 3 CDs – 183 mins]

Mathis de Maler is far from the being the most approachable of operas.  It is set in the 16th  century at a time of civil and religious upheaval, the  so-called Peasants’ Revolt is underway and new Lutheran beliefs are clashing with traditional Catholic dogma.  Amidst the book burning and rebellion the opera focuses on the monastery of St Anthony in Mainz where the painter Mathis is working on a big altarpiece.  We follow his fate and that of a handful of individuals who are inextricably caught up in the turmoil.  The plot slowly reveals their personal trials and mental struggles:  the choice between personal conviction or political expediency, the danger of espousing the wrong cause and values, perhaps above all fear of retribution in this world or the next.  

There are obvious parallels to the political situation in 1930’s Germany and it is hardly surprising that the Nazi party suppressed the opera and Hindemith took refuge in Switzerland.

What is perhaps more surprising is the restraint and control which Hindemith excerpts in his musical handling of his subject matter.   It is certainly a case of “less” being greater than “more”, and his weaving of Gregorian chant throughout is effective in evoking the mysticism of medieval belief still clinging on in monastic life.  Big forces are employed, but sparingly, and with dramatic intensity.

Conductor Simone Young has clearly read the composer’s message correctly and holds strictly to te (pictured)mpos, so that when forces are suddenly unleashed it is really heady stuff, and we have the added excitement of a “live” performance.

There are wonderful interpretations from all the principals. Falk Struckman, as Mathis, is a central pillar of strength in this demanding role.

Scott MacAllister reveals a very human side to the proud Cardinal as he wrestles between temptation and conscience before withdrawing from the world. The voices of the two women are well contrasted, Regina (Inga Kalna) starting with bright enthusiasm, and Ursula (Susan Anthony), with all the warmth of sincerity.

On the “down” side, neither libretto nor translation is included.  There is a track-by-track  synopsis, but it is not sufficient nor particularly easy to follow.   However, the effort is repaid and this is an exceptionally good recording.

Serena Fenwick