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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1953)
Symphony Mathis der Maler (1934) [26.57]
Trauermusik for viola and orchestra (1936) [8.38]
Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943) [20.01]
Konzertmusik for strings and brass (1931) [17.21]
Der Schwanendreher Concerto after old folk songs for viola and small orchestra (1935) [26.58]
Nobilissima Visione - suite (1938) [22.13]
Symphonia Serena (1946) [31.20]
Symphony Die Harmonie der Welt (1951) [35.09]
Geraldine Walther (viola) (Trauer; Schwanendreher)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt (CD1 and 2)
Gewandhausorchester/Herbert Blomstedt (CD3)
rec. 1987-91, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco; 1996-97 Gewandhaus zu Leipzig. DDD
DECCA TRIO 475 264-2 [3CDs: 56.08+66.57+67.01]


At Trio prices this is instantly and robustly recommendable. If you are looking for a superbly recorded substantial and meatily symphonic representation of Hindemith then this set at mid-price is for you.

The boxed set coincidentally marks consecutive periods of Blomstedt’s chief conductorship with San Francisco (1985-95) and the Gewandhaus (1998-). It should be seen in much the same perspective as his fine Nielsen and Sibelius series.

The Mathis symphony is, as the notes indicate, to be seen in parallel with the Die Harmonie der Welt symphony. Both symphonies relate to major operas. Both were completed and performed before the operas on which they are based. Both are concerned with philosophical dilemmas and stresses (like Pfitzner's Palestrina, Inglis Gundry's Galileo and RVW's Pilgrim's Progress). Blomstedt glowingly captures the tenderness of the Mathis score and has the stereo and digital advantage over the composer's ADD mono version. This really does make a difference in Decca's wide-stage sound image.

Die Harmonie der Welt arose from the opera of the same name on the subject of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Kepler related the motion of the planets to a cosmic harmony perceiving the music of the spheres in the motion of the universe. Kepler's search for the harmony that ruled the motion of the planets recalls Schreker's Die Ferne Klang (superbly recorded on Naxos) and a similarly doomed search by the anti-hero in Korngold's Die Kathrin. Blomstedt is excellent in putting across the lofty themes and man's inconsequentiality although Mravinsky in his famous Moscow 1965 version (BMG and Oakwood) is even better, I think. The music has a visionary air, trudging, rambunctious, dissenting and like all of Hindemith largely free from avant-garderie. The finale, Musica Mundana, aims to capture the celestial harmony - "... the world itself is composed of the harmony of sounds and heaven itself moves according to the motion of this harmony" - a text from Hrabanus Maurus (c.780-856). At the peak of this final movement there is a harking back to the finale of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra mixed with some very Russian bells. It is as if Pilgrim has returned home to the open and welcoming arms of God the Father.

Blomstedt is scathingly defiant and full of bravado in the Symphonic Metamorphosis (trs. 5 and 8). He is not insensitive to the Mahlerian winks and in-jokes, magically tense and hushed in the second movement’s Chinese chatter recalling similar enchantment in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

The Konzertmusik for strings and brass is to be distinguished from the Konzertmusik for piano, brass and harps Op.49 (1930) included on DG's fine ‘Hindemith conducts Hindemith’ set (474 770-2). It is a virtuoso piece full of entertaining vitality and extrovert display written, like the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, for Boston Symphony's Fiftieth Anniversary in 1931.

The Trauermusik, famously written to replace the cheeky-cheery Schwanendreher in a London concert that coincided with the death of King George V. Hindemith, like Britten, made no fuss when asked to produce a more dignified alternative and wrote this six minute piece in six hours. Walther is the soloist. She is achingly communicative in this music of mourning - the antithesis of public obsequies; private grief.

Famously Hindemith could play most of the instruments in the standard orchestra and wrote sonatas for all of them. The instrument close to his heart was the viola which he played in the Amar Quartet in the teens and twenties of the last century. Der Schwanendreher is among my favourite Hindemith works - a work much underestimated. A ‘schwanendreher’ is, literally, a swan turner i.e. the medieval servant responsible for turning the skewered swan on the banqueting spit. The piece uses various old German folksongs, the signature song being Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher? (Aren't you the swan-turner?). The piece sometimes resorts to the cheery, smile-wreathed, vacant-eyed and slightly kitschy affability that you find in Siegfried Wagner's Violin Concerto and some of his concert overtures. However the piece is much more than this being sharply soulful much of the time and optimistic in the showy finale where the Schwanendreher tune beams in full glory. Though slightly less lapidary this work bears compare with Vaughan Williams' much deprecated suite for viola and orchestra (nicely recorded on RCA-BMG by Frederick Riddle).

By the way it was Hindemith who famously premiered the Walton Viola Concerto before Lionel Tertis repented of his initial disdain.

Nobilissima Visione sprang from a visit to the church of Santa Croce in Florence in May 1937. There Hindemith was much taken with the Giotto frescoes on episodes from the life of Saint Francis. In this sense the work can be compared with Martinů's Visions of Piero de la Francesca and McCabe's Chagall Windows. It has all the religious visionary glow of Mathis. The work had been completed in February 1938 and the premiere came in London in July 1938 with the Ballet de Monte Carlo, Massine dancing the part of Saint Francis and Hindemith conducting. The suite's three movements draws on five of the eleven sections of the ballet. The central ‘toy march’ links to the Chinoiserie of the Weber Metamorphosis. There is a Venetian Gabrieli-like grandeur about the brass writing especially in the final passacaglia movement titled Here begin Creation's praises. Nobilissima remains a second string to Mathis but is essential listening in the Hindemith oeuvre.

The final disc moves from San Francisco to Leipzig. The Gewandhaus is an even more congenial acoustical space than Davies Symphony Hall. Symphonia Serena is translated in the booklet as ‘Cheerful Symphony’ but it is more serene than red-cheeked and cheery. According to Michael Kube it is a companion to Hindemith's Symphony in E flat (1940), a work I do not know but which was recorded by Boult on Everest. The ever so brief second movement, based on a Beethoven military march, recalls the ebullient moments from the Weber Metamorphosis. The Colloquy movement, for strings alone, has the writing spread across two groups with some succulent pizzicato work at 5.19 onwards . The Serena was premiered by Antal Dorati in Dallas on 1 February 1947.

The notes which I have plundered for parts of this review are first class. Musical analysis is kept to a minimum and such descriptions as are deemed necessary are jargon free. The first class contributions from Michael Steinburg and Michael Kube are drawn from the original single CD issues.

This set rather neatly bookends with the release of the complete DG recordings of ‘Hindemith conducting Hindemith’ on DG 'Original Masters' 474 770-2.

Rob Barnett

Mark Obert-Thorn comments


You mentioned in one of your recent Hindemith reviews that the recording of  "Der Schwanendreher" with the composer as soloist was stuck in the archives. Actually, I transferred that set (with Arthur Fiedler conducting his Sinfonietta) along with all of the rest of his Victor records for a Biddulph CD release (LAB 087) several years ago. This disc also included the Hindemith playing "Trauermusik" (with an unnamed orchestra conducted by Bruno Reibold), the Viola Sonata No. 3 and the Four-Hand Piano Sonata, the latter two with Jesus-Maria Sanroma. All the items were recorded in 1939. It's not listed in the back
catalogue on the Biddulph website, so I assume it's out of print.

Mark Obert-Thorn


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