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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
The Complete String Quartets
String Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 2 (1914-1915) [33:32]
String Quartet No. 2 in F minor, Op. 10 (1918) [30:47]
String Quartet No. 3 in C, Op. 16 (1920) [30:59]
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22 (1921) [25:04]
String Quartet No. 5, Op. 32 (1923) [27:17]
String Quartet No. 6 in E flat (1943) [24:45]
String Quartet No. 7 in E flat (1944-1945) [16:15]
Juilliard String Quartet: Robert Mann (violin), Joel Smirnoff (violin), Samuel Rhodes (viola), Joel Krosnick (cello)
rec. 1995-1997, New York (2-6), Saundhausen (1 & 7)
WERGO WER69602 [3 CDs: 189:25]

Hindemith's seven string quartets can be divided into two distinct compositional periods. Quartets 1-5 were written between 1915-1923, when the composer was in his twenties. The later Quartets 6 and 7 date from 1943-1945, when he was living in the States; unlike the earlier works, they have not been assigned opus numbers. This cycle by the esteemed Juilliard String Quartet was recorded between 1995-1997 and originally issued on Wergo as three separate volumes. Highly praised at the time, it was awarded the German Record Critics Annual Award in 1998. The label has now repackaged the three CDs into a box set, remastering the recordings in 20-bit technology.

Although Hindemith’s string quartets are technically challenging works, their adept scoring demonstrates the composer's familiarity with the medium. In 1921 Hindemith founded the original Amar Quartet, together with his brother Rudolf and two other German musicians, and assumed the role of violist. The quartets have had a rough ride in the intervening years since composition. Apart from the evergreen Fourth Quartet, the other six have been victims of unwarranted neglect.

The First String Quartet Op. 2, thought to have been lost, was only discovered in the mid-1990s. This student work bears the fingerprints of Brahms and Dvořák, oozing melody and lyricism, Many will find it the most accessible of the composer's string quartet ouevre. It displays a wealth of ingenuity and invention. It is difficult to understand why it has not made more significant inroads into the repertoire. The structure of this four-movement work is fairly conventional, the second movement being an Adagio, the third a Scherzo.

Hindemith’s experiences as a soldier during World War 1 are certainly not reflected in the Second Quartet, Op. 10. I find it quite upbeat. The finale radiates a playful exuberance. All three movements—the second is a theme and variations—are more tightly constructed than Op. 2.

The Juilliard Quartet make much of the passion and drama of the opening movement of the Third Quartet, and get fully to grips with its many complexities and changing moods. I love the contrasting middle movement, which is both sombre and reflective. In the finale, they convey generous helpings of vivacity and high-spiritedness.

The Fourth Quartet, cast in five movements, owes its popularity to a succinct expression and style. In the first movement Fugato Sehr Langsame Viertel, the Juilliards delineate the polyphonic strands with clarity. The performance truly conveys the mournful tread of the music. The second and fourth movements, which frame the serene and melancholic slow movement, are vital and energetic. The Rondo finale is genial and good-humoured.

The String Quartet No 5, Op 32 was written two years after its predecessor, in 1923. Hindemith had the Amar Quartet's spontaneous and uninhibited style of playing in his mind when he composed it. An energetic fugue in the first movement is followed by a doleful and darkly embroidered second movement. The third movement is scurrying and crisply articulated, with a Passacaglia to top off proceedings, revealing once again what a dab hand the composer was at counterpoint.

Twenty years separates the Fifth and Sixth Quartets. The Sixth resulted from a commission from the Budapest String Quartet in 1943. They premiered it at a Library of Congress concert in Washington, D.C. on 7 November of the same year. Once again, a fugue is incorporated into the opening movement. The Juiliiards play the faster section with sufficient vim and vigour. A short mettlesome second movement, quite brash in character, precedes a set of variations. The fourth movement seems determined to assert itself with grit and determination.

Hindemith's last venture into the medium was also performed by the Budapest String Quartet at the Library of Congress, this time in March 1946. At sixteen minutes, the Seventh is the shortest of the quartets. It was written for the domestic setting; Hindemith's wife was an amateur cellist and, to some extent, he took her technical limitations into account when writing the work. All four movements radiate a certain charm. A rather attractive songlike slow movement is placed third.

These are stylish and persuasive readings. Technical polish, immaculate intonation and flawless ensemble are compelling features of the Juilliard’s renditions. For those coming to these works for the first time, this cycle cannot be bettered, and it gets my enthusiastic endorsement.

Recorded almost contemporaneously with the Juilliard cycle were The Danish Quartet's traversal on CPO (1995-1996) and the Kocian Quartet's on Praga Digitals (1995). I happen to have these two sets, so was able to do a head-to-head. I found the Kocian's sound hard-edged, lacking the resonance and bloom of both the Danish and Juilliard cycles. How do the latter two compare? Well, the Juilliard are marginally warmer and more immediate. Ensemble of the Kocians can be somewhat ragged at times, but they do include the two parody works for string quartet: 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, a delightfully entertaining piece, and the Militärminimax. I have yet to hear the Amar Quartet's newly released cycle on Naxos.

Stephen Greenbank



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