Paul Hindemith’s three piano sonatas were all written in a single year, during a troubled period just after his Mathis der Maler had been denounced by the Nazis but before he felt forced to emigrate permanently.
The Piano Sonata No. 1 is the richest in fantasy, inspired by a poem by Hölderlin and taking on plenty of that sense and spirit of a narrative and yearnings of one kind or another. Relatively slight, the Piano Sonata No. 2 was considered more of a Sonatina by Hindemith, and the musical material is indeed lighter, though not without an inner life and drama which holds plenty of fascination. The Piano Sonata No. 3 takes on classical structures, Malcolm Macdonald’s booklet notes pointing out its adherence to a Beethovenian four-movement pattern. This is darker and more serious in mood to No. 2 and less lyrical than No. 1: closer to Prokofiev in its sometimes spiky labyrinths, though as with all of these pieces there is a sense of tonal luminosity which shines through in Hindemith’s unerring sense of harmonic tension and cadence. The music is full of light and shade even when the notes are tumbling with virtuoso ferocity. The final track, Variations is in fact an alternative second movement to the Sonata No. 1 which became substituted on the request of Walter Gieseking. The often sparse nature of this movement is in contrast to the sinuous and atmospheric slow march which took its place, and I am inclined to be grateful for Gieseking for being so picky.
Markus Becker has made fine recordings for CPO, and I greatly admired his accompaniments in the Erwin Schulhoff Violin Sonatas for Hyperion (see review). His richness of tone and clarity of touch suits these Hindemith sonatas very well indeed, avoiding rough edges and dealing with technical difficulties with refinement and character. He takes his time over Hindemith’s more searching passages and movements without lingering beyond all reason, keeping that sense of flow which fits hand in glove with the composer’s feel for logic and a kind of aesthetic inevitability which confounds through brilliance of technique and harmonic imagination rather than an overt will to surprise.
There are a few comparable sets of the Hindemith piano sonatas on recordings, and that with the late Bernard Roberts on the Nimbus label (see review) has these and more in an attractive two-disc set. Roberts is excellent in these pieces, and able to create a grand spectrum of sonority and colour, but I hear a greater sense of poetry from Markus Becker. Glenn Gould also notably recorded these works in 1966 and 1973 and these are still uniquely fine performances available through Sony Classics, though opinion is divided as to whether they adhere closely to Hindemith’s intentions - Gould does manage to make them sound quite American and Copland-esque at times. If I have any criticism of Markus Becker it is the possibility of some rhythmic stiffness in faster movements such as the central Lebhaft of Sonata No. 1. It’s doubtful if the music allows much elasticity in any case, but if you compare Gould’s slower tempo and the greater flexibility this permits there emerges a case for being a little less tight-knit. Gould’s more languid approach even seems to bring out some almost jazzy tints in this movement, where Becker’s driving intensity can verge more on a Tom & Jerry scamper, but even this is a hair under Hindemith’s quarter-note = 168 marking. These are all more questions of style and taste than criticism, but intriguingly show how different views on these pieces can reveal such wide divergences in terms of results.
Hyperion’s sound in this recording is excellent, the well proven Potton Hall acoustic creating a fine environment for the piano, with just the right balance between presence and clarity and non-fatiguing distance. Every half-decent collection of 20th century piano music should have Hindemith’s trilogy of sonatas amongst its numbers, and Markus Becker’s recording is as good as any I can name.