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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphony “Mathis der Maler” (1933-34) [28:01]
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (1943) [20:38]
Five Pieces for String Orchestra, Op. 44/4 (1927) [13:23]
Ragtime, Op. 26/5 (1921) [3:34]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. 2010-13, Alte Oper, Frankfurt
NAÏVE V5434 [65:57]

The first three of the four works listed here are arguably Hindemith’s most popular compositions, though perhaps only the Symphonic Metamorphosis is in, or on the fringes of, the standard repertory. One is often tempted to speculate about why Hindemith’s popularity has apparently been on the decline since the 1970s. In the 1960s, for example, Hindemith was often mentioned in the company of Prokofiev and Stravinsky and was more popular than Shostakovich - at least on recordings; I still have catalogues from that era which reveal that surprising fact. I raise this issue because conductor Paavo Järvi, a champion of Hindemith’s music, comments on the composer’s unfairly neglected status in a brief note contained in the album booklet. Anyway, the works on this CD are all quite fine, the Mathis der Maler Symphony and Symphonic Metamorphosis qualifying as first-rate masterpieces.

Here Järvi and company make a good case for Hindemith as a heavyweight among his contemporaries. Järvi delivers fairly straightforward but detailed readings which are intelligently phrased and well recorded. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra plays splendidly for him, sounding world-class in their precision and collective technique.

This Mathis der Maler may not come across as quite as majestic or thunderous in sound as certain other performances, but it is still epic and sonically imposing. Yet it also exhibits a welcome leanness, and brims with energy where appropriate. Conductor Järvi points up much meaningful detail in the process, producing a fine performance. In the first movement the horns play right off with a suaveness and nobility, and the strings effervesce with spirit and energy in the faster music. Here and in the other two movements, the brass typically plays with a burnished, but never piercing, tone which suits Hindemith’s often brass-laden scoring quite well. Järvi blends the various orchestral sections together to get perfect sonic balances and his tempo selections are judicious, if slightly on the slow side.

The short second movement goes very well and Järvi never makes a misstep in the complex and lengthy finale, brilliantly negotiating the mood changes and tricky orchestration, the tempos again slightly on the leisurely side. Thanks must of course go to the fine Frankfurt Radio players; through all the building tensions and final glory, they perform with collective virtuosity and utter commitment.

An equally impressive effort here is that of the Symphonic Metamorphosis. Järvi finds just the right tempo for the first movement and coaxes the brass to ring out with robust mischief. In the brief middle section, the oboe and other woodwinds perform with an infectious playfulness. The second movement (Turandot) is delightfully raucous and witty, played with such gusto by the brass, and vigor by the strings. The Andantino third movement is well executed and the closing panel (Marsch) is delivered with as much life-affirming zest as you’re likely to encounter in almost any other performance of this great and colorful work.

The Five Pieces for Strings can sometimes sound dour, and at other times angst-filled, but there isn’t a hint of the self-pity or despair here as you may sometimes discern in a plethora of works by other 20th century composers. In this very spirited and energetic performance by the Frankfurt Radio strings, Järvi short-changes no aspect of the darker side of this work, and he points up the sunshine, subtle wit and even the playfulness of the music —not missing its undercurrent of menace. Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio players deliver a colorful and hilarious performance of Ragtime; the rowdy laughter at the outset sets the stage for all sorts of aural high jinks. A fine closer.

Naïve offers excellent sound throughout this disc. As far as I can determine, these performances, recorded from 2010 to 2013, are being issued here for the first time. Thus, one wonders what took so long. Whatever the reason, I’m happy they’re finally available. Now as for the competition... there have been many fine recordings of these various works down through the years by the likes of Bernstein (a conductor who spoke glowingly of Hindemith), Karajan, Werner Andreas Albert and others. One might well cite a better performance of the Mathis der Maler Symphony or other of the works here, but as a collection, this new effort by Paavo Järvi is simply hard to beat. Highly recommended!

Robert Cummings


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