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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
The Complete Piano Concertos
Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps, Op. 49 (1930)* [28:33]
Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings (1940) [31:41]
Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), Op. 29 (1923) [19:28]
Chamber Music No. 2 for Piano and 12 Solo Instruments, Op. 36, No. 1 (1924) [23:40]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945) [32:53]
Idil Biret (piano)
Olivia Coates and Chelsea Lane (harp)*
Yale Symphony Orchestra/Toshiyuki Shimada
rec. Woolsey Hall, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, February and December 2012, and January 2013. DDD
NAXOS 8.573201-02 [60:14 + 76:01]

Even if the title of this two-disc set is misleading, since there is only one designated piano concerto, the concept is valid. It is indeed good to have all of Hindemith’s works for piano and orchestra available together. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the performances. Although each is adequate, there are better options for most of these works elsewhere. In general, these sound to me like read-throughs by a student orchestra - talented though the musicians may be - and a pianist who shows little affinity for Hindemith.
 
The composer has been shortchanged over the years because he has had a reputation of being dry and academic and the performances here do not help his cause. It is true that his compositions for solo stringed instruments with orchestra are superior to those with piano, since Hindemith excelled in both violin and viola. On the other hand, he could play to some degree almost every instrument for which he composed. Still with the right performers, these piano works could be much more exciting and attractive than they are here. The works for violin and viola, for example, have received outstanding accounts in this the fiftieth anniversary of Hindemith’s death by such artists as violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann (BIS) and violist Tabea Zimmermann (Myrios). It is a pity that an equal measure of accomplishment wasn’t afforded the piano works.
 
Of the works presented on this set, the best known are the Four Temperaments that Hindemith composed for the ballet and the Chamber Music No. 2 from the series of Kammermusiken for various soloists and instrumental combinations - Hindemith’s answer to the Bach Brandenburgs. For some reason, the insert for this set lists the Chamber Music No. 2 confusingly as being for piano, quartet and brass. It is scored for piano with flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The remaining three works are more rare and, although typical of the composer, varying in quality.
 
The Concert Music for Piano, Brass, and Two Harps is an attractive piece with slow sections alternating with faster ones. It is in this respect much like its successor composition the famous Concert Music for Brass and Strings, Op. 50 that Hindemith also composed in 1930. Given its more unusual combination of instruments the earlier work does not receive as many performances as the later one. One of the difficulties in performing and recording the Concert Music is balancing the brass with the piano and harps. The balance in this new recording would seem about ideal. The piano does not dominate but has an equal role with the other instruments. Turning to a better performance, that by Radoslav Kvapil with the Wallace Collection (Nimbus), the recorded balance is skewed toward the brass and harps with the piano lacking the necessary presence. Otherwise that recording is superior to this new one by bringing the work to life, with really exciting brass playing by John Wallace and colleagues. This one fails in that respect.
 
The Theme with Four Variations depicting the Four Temperaments has also been better served elsewhere, even if it receives the best treatment of all the works in this set. The strings for the most part outplay the brass in the other works on these discs. While this performance is clearly satisfactory, one has only to turn to another, that by Håvard Gimse with the Kristiansand Chamber Orchestra (Intim Musik) to hear what’s missing on the Naxos recording. Next to Gimse, Biret sounds rather stolid.
 
The second disc begins with one of Hindemith’s oddest scores, simply titled Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), which is more of a chamber concerto in the Baroque sense than a piano concerto in the Classical or Romantic sense. Thus it has something in common with the Kammermusik series also represented here. The Piano Music was composed for Paul Wittgenstein, just as the much more famous concertos by Ravel and Prokofiev were. Apparently Wittgenstein did not like the work, but retained the performance rights. The manuscript was found in the papers of his wife, who died in 2001, and received its première in 2004 with Leon Fleisher and the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. It’s a shame that that performance was not recorded for posterity. It might have done more to make the work attractive than either Fleisher’s recording with the Curtis Symphony under Christoph Eschenbach (Ondine) that I reviewed earlier here or the present one. On both recordings it sounds a rather dour piece with lumpy orchestral accompaniment, even if there are occasional flashes of humour.
 
The Kammermusik for Piano and 12 Solo Instruments, however, is a masterpiece. It was composed around the same time as the left hand work. It has some characteristics similar to those of a neo-Baroque concerto but is a delightful composition from beginning to end. The series of seven Kammermusiken for a variety of instruments with chamber orchestra represent the best of Hindemith in his early period and have received a number of first-class recordings. Outstanding are those by musicians of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly (Decca) and the Berlin Philharmonic with Claudio Abbado (EMI). Ronald Brautigam is the pianist for Chailly and Lars Vogt for Abbado. Both easily surpass Biret and the Yale Symphony musicians. The latter need to lighten up to be competitive. It’s not a matter of speed but of character, though they are slower in almost every movement and at times by a large margin.
 
The final work on the set, the one designated as a Piano Concerto, is from Hindemith’s last period, after the composer moved to the US and was teaching at Yale University. The concerto is in three movements and while technically challenging is not a virtuoso showpiece. In fact, I find it overall the least memorable of the works for piano in this set. It would do nothing, at least in the performance here, to attract one to Hindemith and only perpetuates the notion that his music is overly academic. It cannot stand comparison to any of the great string concertos, whether violin, viola (Der Schwanendreher) or cello. A different pianist and a conductor with real Hindemith credentials, such as Herbert Blomstedt, might make a difference. Until someone of that calibre comes along, I’ll take a pass on this concerto.
 
The fact that Hindemith taught at Yale gives these discs some authenticity. The university has done a great deal to further the composer’s reputation. Many years ago I attended a concert there of the Hindemith Requiem (When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d) with the Yale Phiharmonia Orchestra and Chorus under Robert Shaw. It was a truly moving experience. Too bad the Philharmonia, which is the Yale School of Music orchestra, wasn’t employed for this programme rather than the undergraduate orchestra on these recordings. All the same, this is a convenient way to have all of Hindemith’s music for piano and orchestra until something better comes along. This was certainly worthy in concept, if not in execution. Naxos does not disappoint when it comes to its notes both on the works and the musicians.
 
Leslie Wright 

Previous reviews: Steve Arloff & Rob Barnett


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