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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Complete String Quartets
String Quartet No. 2 in F minor, op.10 (1918) [33:13]
String Quartet No. 3 in C, op.16 (1920) [31:26]
String Quartet No. 5, op.32 (1923) [30:17]
String Quartet No. 6 in E flat (1943) [24:34]
String Quartet No. 7 in E flat (1944-1945) [16:22]
String Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 2 (1914-1915) [41:25]
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22 (1921) [25:58]
Amar Quartet (Anna Brunner (violin), Igor Keller (violin), Hannes Bärtschi (viola), Péter Somodari (cello))
rec. Grosser Saal, Radiostudio Swiss Radio, Zurich, Switzerland, February 2009 (Nos. 3, 6, 7), December 2009 (Nos. 1, 4), April 2010 (Nos. 2, 5). DDD
Originally released separately as 8.572163-65
NAXOS 8.503290 [64:39 + 71:13 + 67:23]

The seven string quartets of Paul Hindemith can hardly be described as mainstream, both in recordings and live concerts. That is despite them being one of the most significant bodies of work in the genre of the twentieth century. Yes, they may not be up there with the Shostakovich and Bartók, but they are not far behind. They were composed in three stages, the first during Hindemith’s time as a student, numbers two to five during the 1910s and 1920s. In that period he also wrote some fine chamber works for the violin, viola and cello, linked to his own performing career. Numbers six and seven were composed during his productive period for chamber music known as “Sonatenwerk”, when he wrote sonatas for all the recognised standard instruments of the orchestra.

This is my third recording of the complete string quartets, although my first encounter with these varied and gripping works by the Kocian Quartet on Praga Digital (PRD 350113/14) cannot really be considered complete. It was recorded before the opus 2 quartet was rediscovered and only presents numbers 2 to 7. On a separate disc (PRD 350036) they do, however, provide convincing performances of Hindemith’s two other parody works for string quartet, the humorous Overture to the Flying Dutchman as Played at Sight by a Second-rate Concert Orchestra at the Village Well at 7 O’clock in the Morning and the Minimax (Militärminimax): Repertoire for Military Orchestra. They are both worth hearing, but have received far less attention that the numbered quartets. My other set is the excellent recording by the Danish Quartet on CPO (999 287-2), who along with the Kocian Quartet tend to offer swifter tempos than the “new” Amar Quartet.

The String Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 2 was completed in 1915 whilst Hindemith was still a student at the Hoch’sche Konservatorium in Frankfurt. Despite that, it shows great maturity and expertise. This probably came from the fact that he had to play in various theatre ensembles to support himself through college. Indeed at the time of composition he was deputy leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, becoming its leader in 1917. He also performed as second violin in the Rebner String quartet. That gave him insight into quartet form and practice, and undoubtedly aided in the composition of this, his first quartet. The quartet harks back to the romantic tradition of quartet writing. It only shows glimpses of Hindemith’s more distinctive and mature styles. It was lost until the early 1990s and only published in 1994. It is sometimes regarded as his No. 0.

The String Quartet No. 2 in F minor, op.10 from 1918 was composed whilst Hindemith served on the western front. Despite that, the work shows very little of the angst or horrors Hindemith must have experienced on the front line. This is something of a transitional work. His experiences on the front and in a military band helped him to develop his more personal musical voice. Like all his music, it is based on tonal structure, but is leaps and bounds ahead of his Op. 2. Its central movement Thema mit Variationen shows just how far the composer had moved on since his student days. Its complex harmonies lead to a more complex and technical structure.

Probably the most important of his string quartets is the op. 16 No.3 in C. It was composed in 1920 and gave Hindemith his first real success when it was performed the following year at the first Donaueschingen Chamber Music Days. It was this work that announced him to the world. Possibly even more important was the fact that to save the premiere Hindemith himself played the viola part with a group of musicians which in 1922 would become the original Amar Quartet, after whom the present quartet take their name. Of all his earlier quartets, this is the one that points the way—from the romanticism of the First, through the expressionism of the Second, to the complex contrapuntalism of his subsequent works—and that he would be most remembered for.

The most popular of his quartets, the String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22, composed in 1921, is the only one of his quartets to achieve a regular airing. The work is in the form of a suite that opens with a slow Fugato which leads into a more agitated and expressive section. Here the present Amar Quartet come into their own, with their slower tempo, nearly a minute over their rivals, bringing out every nuance of this music, with the heavy bowed cords of the second movement also being in stronger contrast. The melancholic third movement is described in the booklet notes as “one of the most beautiful movements which Hindemith ever wrote.” The final two movements actually form a single movement, with the Mäßig schnelle Viertel leading straight into the final Rondo.

The second stage of Hindemith’s quartet writing comes to an end with his String Quartet No. 5, Op.32 of 1923, the same year when Minimax was composed. This quartet is the culmination of Hindemith’s goal for clarity of structure in his music, something he carried over into his String Trio of the following year. In this quartet he returns to a four movement format for the first time since the first quartet, although the Danish Quartet in their recording have the third movement Kliner Marsch and the final Passacaglia banded together as a single movement. The work opens with a pulsating double fugue Lebhafte Halbe before moving on, once again, to a more melancholic slow movement. The Kliner Marsch is, as the name suggests, very brief, whilst the Passacaglia leads in to a series of 28 variations based upon the fugal theme of the first movement.

There were some twenty years between the fifth and sixth quartets, in which time a lot had happened. Hindemith had been denounced by Joseph Goebbels as being an “atonal noisemaker”, his music was included in the Nazi exhibition of Entartete or degenerate music and he emigrated to Switzerland in 1938, partly due to his wife’s Jewish ancestry, from where he emigrated to the USA in 1940. It was in light of these developments that Hindemith composed his String Quartet No. 6 in E flat in 1943 for the Budapest String Quartet. An example of his mature style, here the music is more intimate. The opening Sehr ruhig und ausdrucksvoll is unlike the opening of any of his other quartets, one which is not slow, very quiet and expressive, but one in which he clearly lays out his new musical language, one in which “He now works out freely the harmonic and tonal relationships, rigorously organized; at the centre of the tonal relationships in the fundamental note E flat, and the harmony becomes considerably more relaxed.”

It was the Budapest String Quartet who were to give the full premiere of his String Quartet No. 7 in E flat two years later in 1946. The first three movements have had a private performance by a quartet that included the composer on viola, his wife Gertrude on cello and two of his students on violins. The quartet follows the same musical thinking as No. 6, although this is shortest of his quartets, lasting around sixteen minute. Like its predecessor, it is cast in four movements. Although the work is based on strict contrapuntal ideas, it has a lighter and less complicated feel than some of the other quartets.

I found the performance of the Amar Quartet first rate; they certainly live up to the reputation of their namesakes. They manage to bring out the best in this wonderful music. Yes they are the slowest overall, but this is not a bad thing. It gives them time to give voice to every little phrase and section of the music. Yes, I will always like the Kocian Quartet’s playing, but it now sounds a little dated. The excellent Danish Quartet hold their own in comparison to this new set, but for me it is the Amar Quartet, with their greater sense of clarity, which will now be my go-to recording. This is the recording that Hindemith’s string quartets have waited for and deserved. They have an ability to excite, charm and entertain. It is the characteristics that the Amar Quartet manage to effortlessly bring out. It proves that there is a lot more than counterpoint to this composer’s music. This is a recording which should bring new admirers to Paul Hindemith and his music. I only wish that the Amar Quartet are given chance to record the other works for string quartet, the Minimax and the Overture to the Flying Dutchman. On their own this would make a short disc, thirty minutes or so, but there are plenty of fine chamber works that could be included with them, for example the Eight Pieces for 2 violins, viola, cello and double-bass, which I think have not been recorded yet, or even the songs with string quartet.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous reviews (original release): Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 (Byzantion)



 

 




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