Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in A Major (1936) [26:11]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in G Major (1936) [12:18]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B flat Major (1936) [17:49]
Sonata for Piano, Four Hands (1938) [16:03]
Ludus Tonalis (1942) [52:30]
Sonata for Two Pianos (1942) [19:27]
Bernard Roberts and David Strong (pianos)
rec. 17-19 May 1995 (Sonata No. 2 and Ludus Tonalis), 22 May 1995 (Sonata for Piano, Four Hands and Sonata for Two Pianos) and 17-18 July 1995 (Piano Sonatas 1 and 3), Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone, Monmouth.
NIMBUS NI 5459/60 [71:10 + 71:57]
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 is impressive.
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 set.
An impressive survey of Hindemith's mature piano music, beautifully recorded.