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Buywell Just Classical

Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphony, Mathis der Maler (1933/1934) [25:49]
Konzertmusik for strings and brass, op.50 (1930) [16:21]
Der Schwanendreher for viola and orchestra (1935) [26:57]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg (Symphony and Konzertmusik)
Daniel Benyamini (viola); Orchestre de Paris/Daniel Barenboim (Schwanendreher)
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, October 1971 (Symphony; Konzertmusik); Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, June 1979 (Schwanendreher).
Experience Classicsonline

Hindemith, for some unknown reason, has never really been accepted as the major composer he so obviously is. The reason must be because he seems to be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud kind of fellow. Nice enough, to be sure, but somewhat unsmiling and far too serious for his own good. He is perceived as typically German - too much bier and wurst. But this simply isn’t true, for there’s a wealth and range of fabulous music to be found in his huge output - the string quartets, the symphonies, not to mention a set of sonatas for every orchestral instrument with piano accompaniment, orchestral music, operas and ballets. True, he wrote too much and not all of it is on a high plain of inspiration but at his best he is a force to be reckoned with.

This disk contains two of his most approachable works. There’s the superb Symphony Mathis der Maler, made from music he wrote for the opera of the same name, and, one of my favourite Hindemith works, the splendid Konzertmusik for strings and brass, commissioned by Koussevitsky and written for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. We also get the less well known Der Schwanendreher. Odd that it isn’t often heard considering how few major concerted works there are for viola and orchestra. In any event it is a delight, being based on old German folk songs.

Steinberg’s performances here are first rate but this consideration must be tempered by my knowledge of other recordings of the music. My main problem is that, throughout, Steinberg chooses fast, too fast, tempi. The first movement of the Symphony is rushed, the music not having sufficient space to breathe. The middle, slow, movement, is quite eloquent and very poised, containing some fine woodwind playing. Here, as in the first movement, Steinberg knows how to build a big climax within the context of the music and not having it suddenly burst out of nowhere. The final movement is all angst and energy. Again, a too fast tempo is chosen and Steinberg sticks to it with the result that despite the excitement generated, and the obvious commitment to the work, it’s all too breathless. More often than not, Hindemith’s music needs an expansive approach to allow the music time to register with the listener. Steinberg’s 1956 recording of the work, with the Pittsburgh Symphony is on EMI Classics 65868, coupled with Toch’s 3rd Symphony - written for Steinberg and Pittsburgh - and Stokowski’s incomparable account of Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante. That version shows a better and more tempered approach. If you want more modern sound then look no further than the San Francisco Symphony and Herbert Blomstedt on Decca 421 523-2, coupled with the Trauermusik and a sparkling account of the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber.

The wonderful Konzertmusik suffers from the same hectic manner. The Boston players can easily manage Steinberg’s tempi, and it must be said that the brass and strings sound resplendent, but one is left gasping at the excellence of the playing rather than wondering at the superb music. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra can be heard on EMI 5 86095 2, coupled with the Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes of Weber and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite. His is a much stronger prospect, being a better thought out interpretation. But if it’s excitement in these works you’re craving then this is for you. The sound is stunning.

Daniel Benyamini’s account of Der Schwanendreher, Hindemith’s third concerto for his own instrument, is a perfect example of how to play this composer. It is thoughtful, graceful, and his performance has a gentle affirmation in every bar. He is very ably accompanied by Barenboim and the Paris Orchestra.

This issue, whilst not perfect, will certainly please, and it could win new admirers for this much misunderstood, and occasionally maligned, composer. But don’t forget that Hindemith recorded these works himself and if, like me, you want fully to understand this music then the composer’s own interpretations are essential even if the sound is dated. Mathis der Maler is available in two different performances both with the Berlin Philharmonic. They’re on Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in the 1950s - coupled with Concerto for Orchestra, op.38, Cupid and Psyche, Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass and 2 Harps, op.49, Symphonische Tänze, Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, Symphony Die Harmonie der Welt and Theme and Variations for Piano and Strings ‘The Four Temperaments’, DG 474 770-2 (3 CDs). You can also encounter it courtesy of Dutton, recorded in 1934 and issued on CDBP 9767, coupled with Der Schwanendreher performed by Hindemith himself, with the Fiedler Sinfonietta conducted by Arthur Fiedler, recorded in 1939 and the Violin Concerto, played by Henry Merckel, with the Lamoureux Orchestra conducted by Roger Désormière, recorded in 1948. The composer’s Konzertmusik can be heard too with the Philharmonia in the 1950s on EMI 77344. It’s coupled with the Clarinet Concerto with Louis Cahuzac, Horn Concerto, with Dennis Brain and the Nobilissima Visione Suite, the Symphonia Serena and the Symphony in B flat for Concert Band.

If you’re only a casual listener to Hindemith then this is as good an example of his music as any currently available. If you’re more serious about him, then look elsewhere for lasting pleasure.

Bob Briggs  



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