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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Kammermusik No.1, op. 24 no.1 (1921) [15:22]
Kammermusik No.2, op. 36 no. 1 (1924) [18:34]
Kammermusik no.3, op. 36 no.2 (1925) [18:34]
Kleine Kammermusik, op. 24 no.2 (1922) [14:25]
Christopher Park (piano), Bruno Philippe (cello)
Kronberg Academy Soloists, Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. 2018, Hamburg
ONDINE ODE1341-2 [67:04]

In his excellent booklet notes for this CD, Luitgard Schader (translated by Susan Marie Praeder) states that “In 1929 Paul Hindemith stood at the centre of the German music world.” Certainly true; but it’s tempting to say ‘sic transit gloria mundi’; rarely has a composer with such a celebrated name become so marginalised as Hindemith has in recent years. The reaction you often get to a mention of his name is a shrug, and ‘very boring composer’! Well here is the ideal recording to banish such ideas for good and all. These four terrific works from the early 1920s are played with brilliance and wit by these young players under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach – a musical treat from beginning to end.

The most striking is Kammermusik no.1, a piece of such imagination and wicked brilliance that any member of Les Six – who were of course rampant at this time, though in Paris not Frankfurt - would have been proud of. It is in four movements, which range from a wildly energetic opening – marked ‘very fast and wild’ – through a quick march, a mesmeric and thoughtful ‘Quartett’ for clarinet, flute, saxophone and glockenspiel (this last restricted to a single occasional note), to an outrageously brilliant finale. This brings in a jolly dance tune, the ‘Fuchstanz’ (‘Fox dance’) that was popular at the time, hence the movement’s title, ‘Finale 1921’. It signs off - in a nod towards Satie perhaps - with a sudden and rather alarming scream from the siren.

This is hugely enjoyable music, its iconoclasm closest to something like Les Mariées de la Tour Eiffel, Cocteau’s ballet of the same year, with music by five of Les Six. If you wonder why we don’t hear it more often, the answer probably lies in the scoring, whose twelve players include saxophone, accordion and percussion. All need to be of a high technical level – the percussionist, for example, has to cope with a ferociously difficult xylophone part, as well as delivering that final flourish from the siren.

Kammermusik no.2 of 1924 is subtitled ‘Concerto for obbligato piano and 12 solo instruments’. That very description reveals Hindemith’s determination to avoid the normal categories of ‘symphony orchestra’, ‘chamber orchestra’ and ‘chamber ensemble’. You can’t label this music in that way; it is chamber music, but the forces are quite able to deliver near orchestral power when required. It is a delicious work, influenced by Stravinsky, and looking forward to the music of the young Shostakovich of the early 30s. Christopher Park, the German pianist, plays not only with the requisite panache but with great delicacy when required, as in the very slow – but eventful – second movement. The sardonic humour of the brief ‘Kleine Potpourri’ that follows is well realised. The quick finale has, like the first movement, darker moments amongst its initially playful demeanour. In this work, even though Park and the ensemble give an excellent account, my personal choice veers towards to the 2007 recording for Sony Classics by Abbado, with Lars Vogt as piano soloist, and members of the Berlin Philharmonic. This set has all seven Kammermusik works, and the playing is, as one might expect, of the highest possible standard. The characterisation of the music is so strongly projected that it just pips Eschenbach and his players.

Much the same is the case with the next item, Kammermusik no.3 of 1925, a very powerful work, and much more emotionally intense than nos. 1 and 2. In common with all these pieces, though, it emphatically does not outstay its welcome – just eighteen and a half minutes for its four movements. It is a ‘cello concerto, and here I must say that Georg Faust, (principal ‘cello of the BPO), the soloist for Abbado, is superb. But Bruno Philippe on the present CD runs him very close, and I also slightly prefer the balance here, with instrumental detail a little more easily discernible.

The heart of No.3 is the third movement, marked ‘sehr ruhig’ – literally ‘very restful’, though the music is hardly that. The heartfelt response of the solo ‘cello to the intimidating statements of the wind instruments once again brought Shostakovich to mind, this time the bassoon recitative in the 9th Symphony.

Hindemith’s scoring is simply superb; though fundamentally a string player, he himself could get music out of pretty well all orchestral instruments (he even played percussion in an army band during the war!), a range of skills that served him well when he wrote that series of sonatas for a wide range of solo instruments, with piano accompaniment. In this slow movement, his scoring is so economical, yet so telling too.

The finale remains on the dark, minor side, but does lighten a little as it progresses – with a wrong-footing ending in mid-phrase. Despite my leaning towards Georg Faust and Abbado, I stress that this performance is very fine, and does capture convincingly the haunted nature of this music.

What Abbado’s set doesn’t have, however, is the Kleine Kammermusik of 1922. Now this is out-and-out chamber music, written for the standard wind quintet, consisting of flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Though nominally in five movements, it has in reality a classical profile, the 4th movement being extremely short, acting as a prelude to the finale.

This is probably the most frequently performed of all the works on this disc, and is a central part of the repertoire of the wind quintet. The young players of the Kronberg Academy give an excellent, disciplined performance, though in places it again needs to be more sharply characterised. Their performance of the 2nd movement’s waltz is tentative, a little on the slow side, and doesn’t quite get the decadent Viennese feel of the music. For that, and a generally authoritative account, go to the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet on BIS, who are - again as you would expect - absolutely superb in every facet of this small but demanding piece.

However, comparisons are odious (or can be!). And the fact that all the performances on this disc can be favourably compared with such elevated competition speaks volumes; under the benign and experienced guidance of Christoph Eschenbach, the largely young performers have produced something of the highest quality. I await Volume 2 with excitement.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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