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)
Chamber Music No.2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass, Op.36, No.1 (1924)
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.
… 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.
The present collection is without precedent although other Hindemith
projects have resulted in this music being recorded before but with
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
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.