This generously filled two disc set contains Hindemith's most
mature works for one and two pianos. This demanding but rewarding
music is still unknown to the majority of music-lovers. Glenn
Gould recorded the Piano Sonatas in the 1960s; more recently,
the Estonian pianist Kalle Randalu presented them on MDG. The
principal rivals in Ludus Tonalis are John McCabe (Hyperion)
and Boris Berezovsky (Warner Classics).
The three Sonatas were written in quick succession in 1936 and
are, as a consequence, stylistically consistent. The First and
Third require a virtuoso technique and are written in a grand
manner that seems to hark back to both Bach and Beethoven. The
Second Sonata is less ambitious, yet perhaps ultimately more
persuasive than its weightier brothers. Bernard Roberts offers
playing of real power and authority. The imposing second movement
of the First Sonata has plenty of gravitas in this performance.
The finale is the weakest part of the First Sonata; it is simply
far too long and becomes wearisome towards the end. Roberts
does his best here to hold the movement together and his interpretation
The Third Sonata is the most classical of the three and follows
the standard four movement pattern. The movements are more successfully
balanced than in the First Sonata and the fugal finale comes
off very well here, with Roberts achieving the right blend of
momentum and clarity.
For me, the Second Piano Sonata is the real gem of the three.
It is absolutely charming and instantly memorable. This music
makes it clear why so many English composers were attracted
to Hindemith's music in the mid-Twentieth Century. The appealing
blend of neo-classicism, nobility and perky humour suited the
age. Kenneth Leighton shows the influence of the German master
in the outer movements of his two early Piano Sonatinas, not
to mention his Fantasia Contrappuntistica. Walton, Tippett,
Rawsthorne and Arnold Cooke all owe something to Hindemith as
well. Even Vaughan Williams' Eighth Symphony has elements of
the Hindemith style in its Scherzo second movement. Bernard
Roberts plays the Second Sonata with much affection, particularly
the lovely opening of the finale.
In the Sonata for Piano, Four Hands, Roberts is joined by David
Strong and this musical partnership works splendidly. The faster
moments in particular are despatched with considerable flair.
Strong also takes part in the Sonata for Two Pianos, which receives
a distinguished performance. The gamelan-like effects in the
first movement are very successfully realised by both players
and the second movement is also a great success, with rhythms
nicely pointed. The finale is, like the First Piano Sonata,
rather on the long-winded side, but the pianists make this movement
sound as convincing as possible.
Roberts' performance of Ludus Tonalis is worthy to rank
with the two superb rival versions listed above. Roberts offers
playing of great nobility. He refuses to sentimentalise the
more expressive sections of the work and the piece benefits
hugely as a result. Fugue II is strikingly close in style to
early Tippett (Little Music for Strings). Interludium
VIII offers a refreshing change of texture with its brilliant
toccata-like figurations. Other parts, such as Fugue XI are
less inspired musically, but the Postlude provides a suitably
moving conclusion. If I had any criticism to make of Roberts'
performance, it would be that he sometimes misses the humour
in this music. Interludium III and Fugue IX would almost certainly
benefit from a less strait-laced approach. Nevertheless, Roberts'
performance is, as a whole, a notable achievement. For those
listeners interested primarily in Ludus Tonalis, the
choice of version will largely depend on the coupling; both
McCabe and Berezowsky offer just the Suite 1922 on a
single disc. Roberts' inclusion of the three Piano Sonatas,
in such commanding performances, may well settle the matter
in his favour.
These discs are well recorded and the performances are consistently
of the highest calibre. There is also a superb booklet note
by Calum MacDonald. An enthusiastic endorsement for this Nimbus