Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Nobilissima Visione (complete ballet) (1938) [44:06]
Five Pieces for String Orchestra, Op. 44, No. 4 (1927) [14:31]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall-Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA, 4, 5, 19 May 2011 (Nobilissima Visione), 19 May 2011 (Five Pieces). DDD
NAXOS 8.572763 [58:37]

The CD booklet cover proclaims this to be the “first recording of complete ballet”. That is not the case. There's a 1995 Koch-Schwann recording (3-1299-2H1) by Karl Anton Rickenbacher and the Bamberg Symphony of the same complete work. That appears to be out of print and may be hard to find. There may have been others. In any case, the whole ballet is rarely performed partly due to the nature of the subject matter — a depiction of the life of St. Francis of Assisi — and also to the fact that Hindemith extracted a three-movement concert suite from the ballet that became one of his most popular compositions.

Most listeners, I expect, will be quite satisfied knowing the orchestral suite. However, they will miss out on some really fine music that is so typical of Hindemith. The three-movement suite incorporates five of the eleven sections of the ballet, which is thus less than half of the score. The eleven sections of the ballet are

1) Introduction and Song of the Troubadour;
2) Cloth-Merchant and Beggar;
3) The Knight, beginning with a swaggering horn solo;
4) March, familiar from the second movement of the suite;
5) Appearance of the Three Women, the “Pastorale,” part of the suite’s second movement;
6) Festival Music, boisterous and brassy;
7) Close of the Festival, beginning softly with oboe and flute solos before again becoming boisterous;
8) Meditation, used in the suite’s first movement;
9) Violin Playing/The Wolf, imposing with an especially virtuosic trombone solo;
10) Wedding with Poverty, also used in the first movement of the suite; and
11) The Songs of Praise of the Creatures Begin, that is the same as the Passacaglia finale of the suite.

This is a very colourful score with every movement providing plenty of musical interest and memorable themes. Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle Symphony clearly have the measure of the work, the Hindemith idiom seeming second nature to them. There are many fine orchestral solos, such as those of the horn, oboe and flute, but only the trombonist, Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, gets a mention on the disc inlay. He deserves it for his big solo in the ninth section, but it would have been nice to know who the other performers are, too. The whole orchestra plays splendidly throughout.

For those wanting the concert suite, there is plenty of choice, my favourite being Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony on Decca. However, if you want the whole ballet — and you should if you really care about Hindemith — then I can think of no better place than here with Schwarz. That said, I have not heard the earlier recording with Rickenbacher.

Naxos has provided Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony with a big, bold sound, recorded upfront that suits this music well. Paul Conway, in his booklet note, describes the action of each of the ballet’s movements.

The remainder of the CD contains an early work that Hindemith composed as part of a series of pedagogical pieces, intended to introduce young performers to contemporary music. The last of this series has a broader appeal than being merely a tool for teaching and has been widely performed by string groups. Three of the pieces are marked slow (langsam or sehr langsam) and two are marked fast (lebhaft). The slow movements are rather sombre and heavy, while the faster ones lighten things up a bit. The last movement contains an extensive violin solo, performed very well by Emma McGrath who is also listed on the disc inlay. While the work is unmistakably by Hindemith, I do not find it one of his more attractive compositions. It is worth an occasional listen and receives a good performance by the Seattle strings.

The main reason, though, to purchase this disc is for the complete Nobilissima Visione, well worth the CD’s modest price.

Leslie Wright
A second review ...

Paul Conway, always an illuminating and reliable guide, tells us in the Naxos liner-note (also in German) that this 45 minute ballet score is also called 'Dance Legend'. It seems that the score has thematic links with the opera Mathis der Maler. The ballet plot is founded on scenes from the life of Saint Francis.

There are no conventional dances across the eleven tracked movements. As Massine said, the music is rather a dramatic and choreographic representation of the saint's life. It aims to create and sustain a mood of mystic exaltation. We can now hear this at length where most listeners, including this one, will have encountered the music, or some of it, before in the 25 minute suite. It bristles with life and there is nothing of the desiccation for which this composer is often condemned. The innocent puck-like March struts along like a proud elf, elbows, chest and chin out. The Geigenspiel movement (tr. 9) is quiet and very inventive in its ascent towards nobility. Strange - not really - how often Rawsthorne-like figures and treatments pop in and out of focus. As a three quarter hour sequence it's quite disparate but its elements are inventive and engage heart and mind. If you want a more concise and even transcendental statement then the Suite is always there in many recordings including those by the Neschling, Sawallisch, Blomstedt and the composer; not to mention its presence in the fine Brilliant Classics 4CD box (9441): an East German version conducted by Herbert Kegel.

The Five Pieces for string orchestra are variously grave, measured, reflective and subdued. They work very well. They're concise and serious without being severe allowing for some playfulness in the Lebhaft (tr. 14). The final Lebhaft (tr. 16) adopts Bachian wings and pride and boasts a role for solo violin.

A year late for the 60th anniversary of this composer's death but this is a significant and enjoyable release for all Hindemith fans. It's done with utter conviction and apposite style by Schwarz and the Seattle orchestra who have already gained fame for their outstanding Borodin, Rimsky (Capriccio espagnole ~~ Scheherazade) and Shostakovich discs for this company.

Rob Barnett


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