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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria Weber (1944) [19:34]
Nobilissima Visione (suite) (1938) [22:02]
Concert Music for Strings and Brass (“Boston Symphony”). Op. 50 (1931) [16:48]
WDR Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski
rec. 2017, Philharmonie Köln, Germany.
PENTATONE PTC5186672 SACD [58:26]

If you still hold a view on Hindemith as being rather heavy-going as composer then this is the kind of programme that should blow away those cobwebs and set you on a journey of discovery that has plenty of rather special jewels on offer.

The Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria Weber is the summit of a previous project that Hindemith had been involved with involving his musical ancestor’s music. With its superbly crafted orchestration and generally joyous mood this is a four-movement work that does what it says on the tin, transforming and revitalising the original material into something that goes beyond the neo-classical, and listeners familiar with the themes used “will have to admit that the effort I have put into the transformations is far greater than Weber’s original effort.” Nobilissima Visione was composed for ballet based on St. Francis of Assisi. Hindemith made a ‘suite’ version for concert performance by extracting three of eleven movements, starting with the gorgeously expressive Introduction and Rondo, and placing more lively March and Pastorale before a final, grandly imposing Passacaglia. The powerful Concert Music for Strings and Brass was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Hindemith treating the instrumental sections in a concerto-like manner through antiphonal interaction and a surprising variety of timbre.

There are numerous alternative recordings in this repertoire, but looking at the SACD competition for the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria Weber you will soon come across the BIS label with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Neschling, which also has Nobilissima Visione on its programme (review). The BIS recording is of course excellent, but Neschling’s timings are just a little broader than Janowski’s, the latter having the edge in terms of bravura swagger, a quality which suits this score perfectly. I prefer the timbre of the bells in the Scherzo second movement as well. Honours are about even in the Noblissima Visione suite, with Janowski again giving a touch more forward momentum in the first two movements and making the opening Introduction sound less funereal and giving added playfulness to the March in the second movement. Janowski comes in nearly a full minute longer than Neschling in the final Passacaglia, with an extra touch of gravitas that enhances the proportions of the whole without dragging that particular movement in the slightest.

The classic Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy recording of the Concert Music for Strings and Brass on EMI/Warner (review) has a punchy edge that has kept it around on numerous reissues over the years, and its character and quality of playing is compelling indeed. Janowski’s sound is plusher and the brass playing is more generic, and after hearing the Philadelphia vibrato you miss it in the first movement here, which is also slower and a touch heavier in tread than Ormandy. Janowski picks up the tempo in the second part, pushing the strings hard and risking clarity of articulation. This is still an excellent performance, but the old guard still have plenty to teach us about this particular score.

With excellent performances and superb sound quality this is a release that is almost self-recommending. I’m not sure how Hindemith is viewed in the wider world these days, but it wasn’t so very long ago that concert audiences were staying away in droves. Those in the know will be aware of the quality of music on offer in this programme, and with sonics and playing to match it is to be hoped that this release will sell like hot cakes.

Dominy Clements



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