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I last reviewed the Amar-Hindemith Quartet nearly fifteen years ago in the context of Arbiter’s single disc devoted to three of their major recordings (see review). Now Parnassus comprehensively trumps that release with a 3-CD box of the group’s complete 1925-28 recordings. Once again Tully Potter furnishes the comprehensive booklet notes, but this time Mark Obert-Thorn has produced the transfers, dealing very well with many of the problems inherent in them. Daniel Sbardella and Allan Evans produced the Arbiter disc.
My capsule biography of the group in the earlier review should suffice but clearly there is much more to find out and the Parnassus booklet will tell you most of what you reasonably need to know. It’s enough to note the balance between contemporary and canonic repertoire, as the quartet, though formidably equipped to perform Bartók, Krenek and Stravinsky, was also in demand for their Mozart and Beethoven to ensure balanced concert programmes.
The ensemble had the ill fortune to have been recorded at a period when Polydor was trying to play catch-up with technology. Its earliest discs in 1925 were acoustically recorded and then it brought in to US Brunswick’s ‘Light-Ray’ electricals and if you have heard Light-Ray orchestral recordings you will know how dire they can be; the chamber repertoire fared little better in that respect. It’s only in the relatively insignificant single-disc 1928 Mozart coupling that the ensemble can be heard in fine electrical sound by which time, ironically, the original line up had changed, cellist Rudolf Hindemith, Paul’s brother, having been replaced by Maurits Frank.
I won’t reprise my thoughts about the three duplicated works – Mozart’s K428, Beethoven’s Op.95 and the first ever recording of a major Bartók work, in the shape of the Second Quartet – but will focus on the remainder. The watchword for all these recordings is directness and an unsentimental clarity. Their objectivist approach is often fused with a reluctance to vary dynamics – it’s hard to tell whether this is entirely a recording phenomenon or the ensemble’s own approach but probably a bit of both. The impression is one of angularity and abrasive tonal resources, a lack of inflection. This is especially true in the case of the 1927 Mozart quartet I said I wouldn’t revisit but the existence of an earlier 1926 version of the finale allows me to note that it is slightly warmer in tone than the 1927 recording and less obviously congested in the reproduction of the inner part writing.
The other Mozart is that in F, K590. There’s a brusque directional quality that stamps it as anti-Romantic in orientation and an unremitting severity to their blunt aesthetic that will prove arresting to those who believe that chamber music recordings of the 1920s were largely the work of dilettante romantics, heavy with rich vibrato and incessant portamenti. The Amar-Hindemith is quite sparing with its slides but not exclusively so and it’s fascinating throughout to hear when decision making dictates the employment of the device. The Hindemith brothers play Beethoven’s ‘Eyeglass’ Duo in 1925. The recording is very cramped, but the playing is not without wit. There’s a rugged honesty about that Beethoven Op.95 recording – even with first violinist Licco Amar’s piercing tone and Rudolf Hindemith’s grudgingly gruff cello playing. Certainly, the ensemble was well equipped to draw out contrapuntal writing. This first disc ends with the finale of Dvořák’s American Quartet.
One wouldn’t have put much money on an ensemble of this kind making the first recording of Verdi’s Quartet, but it did. The opening movement is rhythmically choppy and very fast though they do manage to relax sufficiently into the second subject. The scherzo takes the instruction ‘Prestissimo’ as seriously as it can, the result being a bit of a slithering mess and there’s a gabble of a finale. With Reger’s String Trio (second violinist Walter Caspar with the Hindemith brothers) they are on firmer stylistic ground. There’s crunchier shellac noise here but one can hear the individual string strands well. A revealing comparison can be made with the 1935-36 recording of this piece by members of the Klingler Quartet. Both Karl Klingler and Paul Hindemith were composer-string players, which gave them added insights, but thenceforth things diverge. The Klingler players are infinitely more nuanced and expressive exponents, and their ensemble is far tighter. By their side, the Amar-Hindemith sound taut and prosaic in places and less detailed too, with wandering intonation in the Larghetto. Yet there is a kind of decisive directness to their reading that stands in stark relief to the Klingler’s playing. They offer an x-ray of the work whilst the Klingler presents a portrait in oils.
Clearly some of the most exciting revelations are proffered in Hindemith’s own music. Not every ensemble was given the chance, in successive years, to re-record the same large-scale work but that is true of Hindemith’s Fourth Quartet, composed in 1921. The group recorded it acoustically in 1925 and then electrically the following year. Both versions are included in this box. Predictably there is little interpretative difference between the two versions though the acoustic is just a touch – but hardly much more – expansive at various points. Perhaps the acoustic recording is the more inward, maybe because, ironically, it succeeded in dampening down Licco Amar’s higher frequencies, but there is much more definition in the driving performance of the Scherzo in the electric remake, and there’s more surface noise too in the earlier version. But what a privilege to hear these two recordings side by side and to know that its composer was at the helm. There’s also the fifth movement of Hindemith’s Serenade.
I noted details about the Bartók in my previous review and it’s simply a case of turning from this 1926 recording to that made by the Budapest Quartet a decade later to hear a performance so divergent in tempos, tonal colour, inflexion and sound. This Amar-Hindemith performance is, by comparison, fascinatingly linear and, once again, direct and though capable of inflexion too, almost wilfully cool. One of their 1925 discs coupled a single movement from Krenek’s Third Quartet with Stravinsky’s Concertino for String Quartet. Both were recorded soon after composition (1923 and 1920 respectively) which reinforces the pioneering nature of the group both in concert – Berg, Casella, Finke, Hoff, Honegger, Jirák, Kodály, Krása, Krenek, Malipiero, Martinů, Novák, Odak, Schoenberg, Vogel, Webern, Wellesz and many others – and of course on disc as well. Indeed, it may not have been until the similarly short-lived New Music String Quartet in the late 40s and 50s in America that a quartet was to do so much for music of its own time.
This is a, attractively produced and presented with cast-iron quality control. It’s presented moreover at a ‘special price’ which should prove an added inducement to those curious about this pioneering group, whose interpretation of cutting edge music illuminates, not least because of Hindemith’s structural insights, and is here brought to renewed life with such care.
CD 1 [79:11]
MOZART: Quartet No.16 in E-flat, K.428 [24:27]
Recorded 1927 ∙ Matrix nos.: 138/43 bi ∙ First issued on Polydor 66568/70
earlier version: IV. Allegro vivace [4:36]
Recorded 1926 ∙ Matrix no.: 414 bg ∙ First issued on Polydor 66418
MOZART: Quartet No.23 in F, K.590 [19:11]
Recorded 1926 ∙ Matrix nos.: 409/13 bg ∙ First issued on Polydor 66416/8
BEETHOVEN: Duo in E-flat for Viola and Cello “with two obbligato eyeglasses”, WoO 32 [5:56]
Recorded 1925 ∙ Matrix no.: 1256 av ∙ First issued on Polydor 66193
BEETHOVEN: Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op 95 (“Serioso”) [19:55]
Recorded 1927 ∙ Matrix nos.: 144/8 bi ∙ First issued on Polydor 66571/3
DVOŘÁK: Quartet in F, Op 96 (“American”); IV. Finale: Vivace ma non troppo [5:03]
Recorded 1926 ∙ Matrix no.: 428 bg ∙ First issued on Polydor 66421
CD 2 [75:29]
VERDI: Quartet in E minor [19:12]
Recorded 1926 ∙ Matrix nos.: 423/7 bg ∙ First issued on Polydor 66419/21
REGER: String Trio No.1 in A minor, Op. 77b [23:01]
Recorded 1927 ∙ Matrix nos.: 71/6 bo ∙ First issued on Polydor 66575/7
HINDEMITH: String Trio No.1, Op. 34 (1924): I. Toccata. Schnelle Halbe: Die Einleitung ein wenig breiter [4:13]: II. Langsam und mit großer Ruhe (Achtel) [7:24]
Recorded 1927 ∙ Matrix nos.: 77/9 bo ∙ First issued on Polydor 66573/4
HINDEMITH: Quartet No.4, Op. 22 (1921) [Electric version] [21:36]
Recorded 1926 ∙ Matrix nos.: 429/34 bg ∙ First issued on Polydor 66422/4
CD 3 [75:55]
HINDEMITH: Quartet No.4, Op. 22 (1921) [Acoustic version] [22:17]
Recorded 1925 ∙ Matrix nos.: 905/10 az ∙ First issued on Polydor 66198/200
HINDEMITH: Die Serenaden, Op. 35 (1924) V. Duett [2:52]
Recorded 1925 ∙ Matrix no.: 1257 av ∙ First issued on Polydor 66193
BARTÓK: Quartet No.2, Sz. 67 (1915-17) [33:58]
Recorded 1926 ∙ Matrix nos.: 415/22 bg ∙ First issued on Polydor 66425/8
10. KŘENEK: Quartet No.3, Op.20 (1923) IV. Adagio (Walzertempo) [3:32]
Recorded 1925 ∙ Matrix nos.: 912 az ∙ First issued on Polydor 66201
11. STRAVINSKY: Concertino for String Quartet (1920) [5:27]
Recorded 1925 ∙ Matrix no.: 911 az ∙ First issued on Polydor 66201
Amar-Hindemith Quartet (Licco Amar, violin I; Walter Caspar, violin II; Paul Hindemith, viola; Rudolf Hindemith, cello)
Amar Trio (Walter Caspar, violin; Paul Hindemith, viola; Rudolf Hindemith, cello)
Hindemith Duo (Paul Hindemith, viola; Rudolf Hindemith, cello)
MOZART: Quartet No.15 in D minor, K.421: III Menuetto & Trio – Allegretto [3:42]
Recorded 24 October 1928 ∙ Matrix no.: 2-21021 ∙ First issue Parlophon P-9351
MOZART: Quartet No.21 in D, K.575: II Andante [4:09]
Recorded 24 October 1928 ∙ Matrix no.: 2-21022 ∙ First issue Parlophon P-9351
Amar-Hindemith Quartet (Licco Amar, violin I; Walter Caspar, violin II; Paul Hindemith, viola; Maurits Frank, cello)