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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Kammermusik No.1, for Chamber Orchestra, Op.24, No.1 (1921) [15:22]
Kammermusik No.2, for Piano and 12 Instruments, Op.36, No.1 (1922) [18:32]
Kammermusik No.3, for Cello and 10 Instruments, Op.36, No.2 (1925) [18:34]
Kleine Kammermusik for Wind Quintet, Op.24, No.2 (1922) [14:25]
Christopher Park, Xi Zhai (piano)
Bruno Philippe (cello)
Kronberg Academy Soloists & Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. 2018 NDR Studio & Rolf-Liebermann-Studio, Hamburg
ONDINE ODE1341-2 [67:04]

This is volume one in a series to record the chamber music of Paul Hindemith. I've suggested in these pages before that I believe Hindemith's contribution to twentieth century music is greatly underrated. In a previous review that covered the Mathis der Maler Symphony and other Hindemith works, I discussed his curious decline in popularity which began from about the 1970s. In the 1960s Hindemith was more popular than Shostakovich, at least if I can judge from the recording catalogues of that day, which I still have. Many would speak of him then in the company of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Perhaps his decline owes something to his propensity to write many works for odd combinations of instruments, like the ones included on this Ondine CD. Indeed, orchestras and traditional chamber ensembles tend with few exceptions to perform music with more standard instrumental requirements.

Kammermusic No.1, for example, is scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, accordion (or “accordeon” as in the album booklet repertory listing), piano, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass and percussion. Kammermusik Nos.2 and 3 are more wind-oriented with no percussion but also require odd instrumental combinations, while Kleine Kammermusik is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. Yet, Hindemith's music here is never less than compelling in all four works, perhaps even masterful. He is able to get so much colour and create such different sound worlds in these pieces.

But what might hold them back a bit for certain listeners is their generally light character, their slapstick sense of humour and their sour but deft lyricism. Kammermusik No.1 is clever, if brash and uncouth, with a kind of in-your-face character that might have served well as accompaniment for a silent movie comedy of that day or even a Bugs Bunny cartoon of a later time. No.2 for piano and 12 instruments is a bit more serious, but still with plenty of humour and colour, while No.3 grows more serious still, especially in the third movement. Kleine Kammermusik, a five-movement work (the others are in four each) is of a somewhat different character: it is an insouciant, at times even zany, work with very barren textures. But it has its serious moments too, as shown in the somber third movement.

The apparent force behind this recording is Christoph Eschenbach, well known to most listeners as an acclaimed pianist who went on to conducting, leading such ensembles as the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris and others. He does a splendid job of obtaining more than just competent performances from these two student/youth ensembles. The Kronberg Academy Soloists are comprised of string players (though now the school also accepts pianists), while the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra is an ensemble of 120 or so members of 26 years of age and younger that changes its personnel yearly, following auditions held during the winter. The latter group has obviously provided the wind players for these works, and I would surmise the former has supplied all or most of the string contingent. Pianists Christopher Park (Op.36, No.1) and Xi Zhai (Op.24, No.1), as well as cellist Bruno Philippe are young artists who are already established in the concert world. As suggested above, the ensemble members and soloists here deliver more than just professional work; indeed, their performances are excellent, subtly nuanced, spirited, full of colour, and Ondine has provided the artists with well balanced and vivid sound reproduction. Incidentally, Eschenbach has served as principal conductor of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra since 2004.

The Kammermusik No. 1 sparkles in this performance, all its humour and sass coming across in brilliant colours and with vivacious brio. I can't imagine it being played significantly better—I'll speak more about this below. Christopher Park's performance in No.2 is splendid, with judicious tempos, more than adequate technique and the interpretive acumen needed to bring off Hindemith's often quirky expressive manner. In No.3 Bruno Philippe turns in a fine account of this, the most serious work here, although I think his tempos, while never sounding laggardly could be a little more brisk, as is the case with David Geringas's performance on CPO. That said, I'm fully satisfied with Philippe's playing here and that of the ensemble members. The final work, the Kleine Kammermusik, appears to have the most currency in the concert halls and on recording, though it's far from the standard repertory. Here, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival players perform with great spirit and accuracy, the pacing a bit on the expansive side but quite workable, and their sense to find the right balance between main and secondary lines, as well as among the instruments themselves, impeccable. Of course, Eschebach must be given a good measure of the credit here as well.

The album booklet contains an essay by Luitgard Schader, whose information on the four Kammermusik pieces and the composer is most interesting and informative. The competition is very thin in these works. I found no other disc currently available containing these four compositions, although Decca has them on a double-CD set, which I have not heard. There is also an RCA double-disc set having the Kammermusik Nos. 1-7, and a few other CDs that offer some of this repertory mixed in with other works. I mentioned the CPO set which is in a box of five discs, led by Werner Andreas Albert with members of the Tasmanian SO and Frankfurt RSO. The performances, especially the aforementioned Kammermusik No.3 with David Geringas, are quite fine. They date from the early 1990s and sound reasonably good, but I prefer the sonics on this new Ondine CD. Moreover, its performances stand up very well against those on the CPO discs. Thus, the bottom line here is that if you are an admirer of Hindemith's music, especially his rarely heard chamber music, you certainly won't be let down by this rather unique disc.

Robert Cummings

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