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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphony, Mathis der Maler (1933-1934) [30:51]
Symphony in E flat major (1940) [36:37]
NDR Sinfonieorchester/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. no details available
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from eClassical.com
No booklet
ONDINE ODE1275-2 [67:28]

I’m not impressed, and that’s before I’ve heard a note of this new recording. Ondine haven’t provided a booklet with this download, and that’s unacceptable. Oddly, they supply PDF notes with some of their digital offerings, but not all. They’re not the worst offenders – some labels never do – but that’s really no excuse. In the past I’ve endeavoured to find out why music buyers are treated in such a cavalier fashion and I’ve been fobbed off with some bizarre replies. The upshot is that too many labels and/or distributors don’t seem to care about this issue; as for DSPs, such as eClassical and Qobuz, they aren't happy with this situation either.

Paul Hindemith’s Mathis symphony, a depiction of the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528), is one of the composer’s more engaging works. I do sometimes feel his orchestral pieces are rather austere – dour, even – but then that’s usually when they’re badly played or recorded. Which is certainly not the case with Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony’s magisterial Mathis, recorded for Decca in 1987; indeed, I’d say that album – coupled with the Trauermusik and the Symphonic Metamorphosis after themes of Carl Maria von Weber – is one of the best things Blomstedt’s ever done. Not only that, the sound is superb.

Christoph Eschenbach’s reading of the Engelkonzert (Angel Concert) isn’t terribly encouraging, for it lacks both the heft and the superior blend that makes Blomstedt’s account so special. I also miss the latter’s heightened sense of drama - of wonder, even – and his colouristic touches. The quieter music of Eschenbach’s Grablegung (Entombment) is more appealing though, with delicate plzzicati and some lovely contributions from the woodwinds. He handles the movement’s big, brass-laden chorales with authority and the closing bars are suitably hushed.

Despite these occasional felicities Eschenbach’s Mathis fails to cohere or convince. Blomstedt’s pulse is stronger, steadier, and he maintains a telling sense of momentum throughout. That said, the surging strings at the start of Eschenbach’s Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) are impressive, and I was pleased to hear him eke out more detail here. However, I’d happily forgo such fleeting insights for a longer, smoother line and, in the final pages, a genuine sense of apotheosis. Blomstedt is tauter and more thrilling here – he also has the better bass drum – but then Decca’s sumptuous recording is hard to beat.

Hindemith wrote his Symphony in E flat major soon after he settled in the US in 1940. Framed in four movements it doesn’t differ that much from what’s gone before, yet I find the work hard to like; it’s even harder to bring off. Eschenbach’s reading is big, bold and rather bluff at times, but as with his Mathis it just fails to engage. Admittedly Hindemith must shoulder some of the blame for that – witness the finale’s curious, rather squat character – but at least Eschenbach finds a little more lift here than Werner Andreas Albert and the Melbourne Symphony on CPO (999 248-2). By contrast Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic are both cogent and compelling in this symphony; the playing is excellent and the Chandos sound is first rate, too (CHAN9060).

Even though I warmed to Eschenbach’s Mathis over time it still doesn’t supplant Blomstedt’s in my affections. Incidentally, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with the ever-thoughtful Martyn Brabbins are well worth hearing in this piece (review). As for the Symphony in E flat major readers may be tempted by Albert’s fillers, the Symphony in B flat for Concert Band and the overture Neues vom Tage. Alas, the performances are somewhat scrappy and the sound is rather coarse.

Eschenbach gives middling performances of both works; Blomstedt is still my first choice for Mathis, Tortelier my pick for the partnering symphony.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

 

 




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