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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
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. 2009-10, Grosser Saal, Radiostudio Swiss Radio, Zurich
Originally released separately as 8.572163-65
NAXOS 8.503290 [3 CDs: 203:15]

When I started learning about modernism in music many years ago, the four names I was told I should take note of were Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky – and Hindemith. Hindemith’s star has fallen a good deal since then: only a handful of his large output is performed with any regularity and his carefully worked out compositional technique has not had any followers. Yet at its frequent best, his music has a particular tang, an acrid melancholy, a rhythmic zest and a kind of beautiful harshness which comes from his eschewing the more obviously ingratiating harmonies.

These qualities come out clearly in his seven string quartets, which deserve as much recognition as those of Schoenberg and Bartók, not to mention Shostakovich and various others. Originally the cycle was taken as consisting of six quartets; Hindemith never published No 1, though he gave it an opus number, and for many years it was thought lost and left out of the numbering. After No 1 was rediscovered and published in 1994 the others were all renumbered, but you will find the earlier numbers in older recordings and references.

Actually, though it is good to have it, No. 1 need not delay us long. It is very long and bursting with ideas but also obviously a student work indebted to Brahms and Dvořák. It is artfully composed with some strikingly original ideas, for example the slow movement is a funeral march. The most attractive movement is the third, a rather Mendelsohnian scherzo.

The real Hindemith gets going with No. 2, in three movements which get progressively longer. There is still an aura of Brahms though most of it is closer to early Schoenberg. It is an impressive work but not quite mature.

Nos. 3, 4 and 5 were written in close succession and form an impressive trio. No. 3 is clearly a masterpiece, urgent and expressionist but not unduly so, with memorable themes and a good deal of variety. No. 4 is even bolder; it is in five movements which some compare to a suite, but it suggests to me the arch form which Bartók also used around the same time in his quartets. It opens with a slow fugue like Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet Op. 131, which becomes agitated before subsiding. There is a vigorous scherzo with two trio-like episodes, a slow movement which features a melancholy theme unwinding at length over a throbbing bass, a short intermezzo and a final rondo with fugal elements. No. 5 is energetic and passionate. If I consider it a slightly lesser achievement it is because it somewhat lacks rhythmic variety compared to its two predecessors.

After these it was twenty years before Hindemith returned to the quartet medium. By then he had written his great opera Mathis der Maler, left Germany and settled in the United States. He had also worked out his theory of composition and written his piano work Ludus tonalis which demonstrates it. He was at the height of his powers. We can sense in No. 6 a new lyricism which harks back to some of the earlier quartets but in a new mood of grave detachment and compassion. We feel this serenity immediately in the opening movement. It is followed by an exciting scherzo full of leaping rhythms and with some soaring themes. There follows a set of variations, occasionally in dance rhythms or throwing out a long lyrical line, and a finale which evokes the previous movements. This is perhaps his finest quartet.

No. 7 is a shorter, lighter and more playful work, written with supreme ease and mastery. In fact he originally wrote it to play at home with his wife and two students. The jagged themes are cheerful rather than aggressive and the whole work is imbued with good spirits. Hindemith was to live nearly twenty years longer but wrote no more quartets; perhaps he felt he had said all he could in the medium.

The Amar quartet is named after the one Hindemith himself formed in 1921, though he switched from the violin to the viola and so the quartet was named after its leader, Licco Amar. This Amar quartet is a Swiss ensemble and took its name in 1994. Clearly for them the Hindemith quartets are core repertoire and they play with the confidence and swagger that comes from familiarity. Interestingly the two violinists alternate the role of leader. For the record it is Anna Brunner in Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 6 and Igor Keller in Nos. 1, 5 and 7. The recordings were made in a radio studio which has natural acoustics for chamber works and the sound is excellent. They were made in conjunction with Swiss Radio DRS and are a coproduction.

The three discs were originally issued separately and are still available in that form. This set simply boxes up those discs. They are not programmed consecutively: disc 1 has Nos. 2 and 3, disc 2 Nos. 5, 6 and 7 and disc 3 Nos. 1 and 4.

There is not a great deal of competition. Both the Danish and the Kocian quartet recordings are twenty years old, and the Kocian set was recorded before No. 1 had been rediscovered. I have enjoyed both of these in my time but this new set is far better: better played and better recorded. The Juilliard quartet cycle comes from the same period; I have not heard this but it has recently been reissued (review). Anyone choosing this new cycle will be well rewarded.

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe (Recording of the Month)



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