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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
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, Quartet and Brass, Op.36, No.1 (1924) [23:40]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945) [32:53]
Idil Biret (piano)
Olivia Coates and Chelsea Lane (harps)†
Yale Symphony Orchestra/Toshiyuki Shimada
rec. Woolsey Hall of Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. February and December, 2012, January 2013
NAXOS 8.573201-02 [60:14 + 76:01]

There is a photo in the booklet accompanying this 2 CD set showing the Turkish pianist Idil Biret during the rehearsal of Hindemith’s Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps conducted by Nadia Boulanger in 1963. This shows that she has been associated with the work for at least fifty years. Her connection with Nadia Boulanger goes back even further since she went to Paris to study with her at the age of seven. I remember coming across her name along with another pianist, the Hungarian Jenő Jandó, when Naxos Records first appeared on the scene. At that stage there were some sniffy critics who questioned the company using artists they had not heard of before as if ‘fame’ were a guarantee of quality. I’m pleased to say that you don’t hear such comments any longer. These musicians and many others who record for Naxos are as well known to us all now as the label itself. Naxos is, after all, the largest independent record company in the world and is responsible for introducing us to a wealth of music that would otherwise be little heard.

I found Hindemith’s Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps a fascinating departure from a conventional piano concerto and the inclusion of brass and harps sharing centre-stage with the piano is such an interesting concept. Composed in 1930 to a commission by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge it was, as the booklet explains “part of Hindemith’s search for diverse sound colour, with the use of four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, two harps and piano”. With such a line-up he could hardly fail to find new sounds. With its echoes of Weill and Eisler it is a fairly easily identifiable product of inter-war Germany. There are some spiky rhythms and stridency especially in the second movement marked Lebhaft (lively). The third gives the brass (and orchestra) a rest, with the piano and harps on their own creating an ethereal atmosphere. Those instruments are ‘woken from their reverie’ when the brass re-enters along with orchestra in the last movement. For the first time Hindemith quotes a folk-tune which is taken from piano by both harps and brass to develop. This is a work that people may not find immediately attractive. I found it required repeated hearings before it revealed itself fully to me but it is well worth persevering.

Hindemith’s Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings was intended for Diaghilev’s choreographer Léonide Massine to create a ballet. Differences of opinion between them led to it being developed by the other great choreographer of the age George Balanchine and it received its première on 20 November 1946. An early experiment in “fusing classical ballet steps with a lean and angular style” the work represents the theory that there are four fundamental types of human personality: the melancholic (analytical and literal), the sanguine (sociable and pleasure-seeking), the phlegmatic (relaxed and reflective) and the choleric (ambitious with leadership qualities). Carl Nielsen also wrote a symphony with the same subtitle. This is music that has instant appeal with some very beautifully lyrical string writing. After an introduction that sets out the main theme Hindemith successfully represents the four characteristics in the variations. The opening one is suitably serious whilst the second, characterised as a waltz, is especially affecting as a representation of the sanguine. The third is a gentle tune which is a marked contrast to the closing variation which is full of passion. The piano returns to play a leading role in this movement. In the rest of the work it has a relatively secondary role as another member of the orchestra rather than as a leader but it suits the overall framework.

CD2 opens with Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand) which Hindemith wrote following a commission from Paul Wittgenstein who had lost an arm in the First World War. He was also responsible for commissioning similar works from Prokofiev, Ravel and Korngold and Britten, Hans Gál, Leopold Godowsky, Moriz Rosenthal, Franz Schmidt, Richard Strauss and Alexander Tansman all dedicated works to him. Sadly, Wittgenstein declared that he did not understand Hindemith’s work and refused to play it though he kept the score which was found after the death of his widow in 2001 among her papers. It was only given its première in 2004 by Leon Fleisher. The works by both Prokofiev and Godowsky suffered similar fates all of which speaks much more of the dedicatee than the composers. As far as Hindemith’s work is concerned it is quite hard to appreciate what it was about it that seemed beyond Wittgenstein. Surely it is not simply the passage of years that mean we can now appreciate it while he couldn’t. It is no more difficult a work to understand than many such dating from the same period. It has charm with what sound like folk references which render it quite ‘harmless’, at least to the listener. Hindemith himself described it as simple and completely unproblematic. Maybe that is the key since the work is without technical complexity, the composer regarding it as a challenge to his abilities rather than something with which the pianist could show off. More a Baroque concerto than one in the classical sense I found it a very enjoyable not to say delightful work. With its short length of less than twenty minutes it is an object lesson in economic writing. 

Chamber Music No.2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass is scored for an extremely tightly knit group, namely flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, cello and double bass. That’s a total of only twelve instruments plus piano making for a very compact work. It is quite lovely with some really delightful touches. The piano writing has some wonderful sections in the opening movement in which notes cascade in the most appealing way. An interesting feature is the disparity in the lengths of the movements [3:31], [12:01], [1:51] and [6:17] with the lyrical slow one longer than the rest put together. It’s followed by the strangely minute “Little Potpourri” which is full of fun. The work is rounded off with an energetic finale that recalls the character of the opening.

The final work on this two disc survey of Hindemith’s works for piano and orchestra is his piano concerto from 1945. This opens with a clarinet which stays to accompany the piano for a while after its entry. As with the other works here the piano does not take the kind of lead role that we are used to in piano concertos generally. Rather it stands as another instrument that, though it has its moments in the spotlight, develops the material together with the orchestra. The three movements, all of roughly equal length, contain some extremely tuneful music with the central slow movement particularly full of lush phrasing. The closing movement is based, so the notes explain, on an obscure 14th or 15th century dance. It is divided into five contrasting sections with an unusual form which has the theme introduced at the end after the variations upon it. The Concerto is very appealing and it is a shame it is not programmed more often in concert halls. Will we ever get away from the over-concentration on core repertoire and be given more opportunities to discover more of the music other composers have produced. As I said at the beginning that is something which Naxos records has always favoured. Among their over 6000 recordings are many rare gems. This survey is another good example of their commitment to broadening our understanding of the rich canvas of music that exists away from the music of the giants.

Idil Biret, who has dispelled the murmurs of the doubters and is now correctly recognised as a great artist, does sterling service to the memory of Paul Hindemith, as do both orchestra and conductor. This set should be explored by anybody who has not heard these works before. They will be pleasantly surprised by the wealth of enjoyment that is to be had in them.

Steve Arloff 

… and a further perspective by Rob Barnett 

The complete this; the complete that. It has a pull. Well, it certainly does for me. The idea - sometimes illusory - that you have everything by a composer or everything he or she wrote in a particular genre is attractive. There are some pretensions to certainty in this claim where the composer has died. Where she or he is still alive then it is possible that there will be further works from that creative mind. Take another recentish Naxos disc - The Complete Works for Solo Piano by Ian Venables who is just 58. Plenty of time to add to that store. Rather like celebrity biographies written while the subject is in his or her 30s or 40s there may yet be another or several editions over the years.

Hindemith died some fifty years ago so the music lover has little to fear about this being found to be incomplete in years to come. That is unless unknown scores turn up or incomplete works are completed or arrangements made that fit into the piano and orchestra part of the composer's catalogue.

Idil Biret has a complete edition devoted to her many and masterly recordings and produced under the aegis of Naxos. Here she embarks on a completely new project and does so with great virtuosic skill and sensitivity. She is partnered by the Yale SO under Toshiyuki Shimada. tutelage. 

The present collection is without precedent although other Hindemith projects have resulted in this music being recorded before but with different couplings.

The first disc treats us to two meaty works. These were written at the beginning of two consecutive decades in which Hindemith's homeland faced disillusion, humiliation, upheaval and the sprouting malign seeds of Nazi militarism. The Concert Music is in four gaunt and awkwardly angular movements. All fat has been stripped away. This is the antithesis of Pfitzner, Strauss and Korngold. We are left with a jazzy, lively jerkiness and a gaunt majesty alongside a cold calm. The Sehr Ruhig third movement feels like a Nordic ballad and that impression does not arise simply from the presence of the two harps - delightfully and ear-charmingly captured, by the engineers, by the way. From 1940 comes the Four Temperaments written in the USA five years after the composer left Germany. The lean textures remain but Hindemith is partial to sentiment and emotion much as we hear in his glorious Viola Concerto Der Schwanendreher. There are five movements for piano and strings: a calm and understatedly dignified Theme and a Melancholisch that, with voices for solo violin and solo piano, sounds like a sorrowing slow movement from a sonata. Then comes the sidling Sanguinisch Walzer. It is most attractive and delicate, occasionally sounding like populist Shostakovich. The Phlegmatisch (III) is hesitant and reserved, gaining pace and confidence to a very modest degree towards the close of the movement. The final Cholerisch keeps getting drawn back from anger into reflection, fantasy or quiet conversation. A more dynamic and pointedly less cautious approach could easily be imagined.

The oldest works here are the two pieces on CD 2 from 1923 and 1924. The first sports a typical title - Piano Music with Orchestra. This was written for piano left hand for who else than Paul Wittgenstein who did not take to it yet sat on the performing rights - he had after all paid for it. It's not a specially striking work although it has its moments where I thought of Stravinsky and of Kurt Weill's First Symphony especially in the second movement. There is a lovely cool neo-Bachian Trio before a gruff and irritable finale marches in with further echoes of Weill's symphonies. It's not a long work with its four movements finished in just short of twenty minutes.

From 1924 comes the Chamber music for piano, quartet and brass. The first movement's player-piano style keyboard robotics reminded me of Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto in their intricate glitter and staccato attack. There's a desolate and disconsolate second movement and a dour yet flightily satirical third movement and finale.

We end with the Hindemith Piano Concerto from the last year of the Second World War. It was written for Jesús Maria Sanromá (1902-1984) who was something of a presence on the US concert circuit. It was written in Maine and New Haven. This is not a conventionally combative heroic piano concerto in the Pfitzner, Marx or Brahms sense. Its three movements chart a trajectory that suggests an entertainingly brilliant philosophical discourse. The orchestration is crystal clear and highly inventive. Try the otherworldly Langsam central movement as testimony in support of this.

Hindemith's piano concertos are here most effectively and affectingly put across. Hindemith's music kept a tight rein on emotional freedom in the case of these 'piano concertos'. Certainly their emotional world belongs more to that of the Kammersymphonies than to the ambitious full orchestral symphonies such as Harmonie der Welt and Nobilissima Visione. Given the Piano Concerto title and the 32 minute duration I had half been expecting something more freely passionate but that was not what Hindemith intended. Perhaps Hindemith's years in Ankara account for the Turkish flavour of the last and exciting part of the finale.

With the reservations set out above justice is done to these works by Biret and her collaborating musicians from Yale. All credit to her and to them for recording such an unexpected genre within the Hindemith catalogue and for making of it something that fascinates even if it does not always move one emotionally.  

Rob Barnett