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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Flute sonata (1936) [13:38]
Oboe sonata (1938) [12:12]
Clarinet sonata (1939) [16:15]
Bassoon sonata (1938) [8:05]
Althorn sonata (1943) [12:26]
Les Vents Francais
Rec. 2016/17, Bavaria Musikstudios, & Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
WARNER CLASSICS 9029504441 [61:37]

Les Vent Français (The French Winds) have issued their seventh album on Warner Classics: Paul Hindemith’s five wind sonatas with piano. Each of the five distinguished wind players appears with pianist Éric Le Sage, the group’s regular collaborator.

My first review of Les Vent Français recordings discussed a double set: Music for Wind Quintet and 20th-Century Wind Quintets. Next came a review of a three-disc album Winds & Piano (four French works; two masterpieces by Mozart and Beethoven; and works by Thuille and Rimsky-Korsakov). There folowed a review of Concertante! with sinfonia concertante repertoire of the classical era.

A prolific composer, Hindemith utilised various instrumental combinations, and tackled many genres; his several operas include a masterpiece, Mathis der Maler. Hindemith explained to his publisher that he wanted to enrich the chamber repertoire, especially for winds. Between 1935 and 1955, he wrote twenty-six sonatas for winds, strings, piano, organ and harp.

Oboist François Leleux says: ‘These Hindemith sonatas are a great asset to the wind repertory… Hindemith took a very particular approach to each instrument, with a wonderful sense for its individual sound.’ Some say that Hindemith’s scores for small forces, such as these sonatas, are academic exercises, a standpoint not without some merit. These are not sonatas for which I will make claims of greatness or indispensability. But they are undoubtedly excellently written and certainly worth hearing, especially in such impressive performances as these.

The earliest work here, the 1936 three-movement Sonata for Flute and Piano, was Hindemith’s first sonata for a wind instrument. The piece has a non-musical history. From 1933, Hindemith’s position in Nazi Germany was becoming increasingly perilous. His music served as an example of ‘degenerate music’, and Goebbels condemned him as an ‘atonal noisemaker’. He also played in a trio with two Jewish colleagues, and his wife Gertrud had Jewish heritage. Soon after he wrote the flute sonata, his music was banned in Germany. The planned premiere in Berlin was prohibited. Instead, flautist Georges Barrère and pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá introduced the sonata in April 1937 at an all-Hindemith concert at the Eighth Festival of Chamber Music in Washington, D.C. On this recording, the renowned Emmanuel Pahud gives a well-focused, accomplished performance, with an especially engaging third movement Sehr lebhaft - Marsch, upbeat and cheerful, which ends with a rather tongue-in-cheek march of martial quality.
1938 was a watershed year for Hindemith. He resigned as composition professor at Hochschule für Musik in Berlin but success came in May with the Zurich premiere of Mathis der Maler. In July in London, oboist Léon Goossens and pianist Harriet Cohen introduced the recently completed oboe sonata, and a day later came the premiere of the ballet Nobilissima visione. After much deliberation, in August Hindemith and his wife decided to flee from the obvious perils in Berlin for the safety of neutral Switzerland.

Cast in two movements – the second twice as long as the first – the Oboe Sonata is one of Hindemith’s most delightful and melodic compositions. The opening movement marked Munter (lively, cheerful, jaunty) features a fascinating rhythmic interchange between oboe and piano. The mood is predominantly sprightly and positive; sometimes a mocking edge is punctuated by contrasting episodes of serious calm. The eight-and-a-half-minute second movement has three sections: Sehr langsam. Lebhaft - Sehr langsam, wie zuerst - Wieder lebhaft. Far more complex than the first, the second movement oscillates between slow and lyrical, and lively sections of contrasting personalities. François Leleux and Éric Le Sage ensure that the sense of despondency in the writing is never far away. Leleux, a most stylish oboist of unfailing ability, produces an attractive liquid tone.

The two-movement Bassoon Sonata is the shortest here, at just over eight minutes. Now a staple of the bassoon repertoire, the score was completed in 1938 in Switzerland. Bassoonist Gustaf Steidl and pianist Walter Frey gave the premiere in November that year in Zurich. The short opening movement marked Leicht bewegt (Nimble with agitated movement) contains rolling melodies that could belong in a Schubert Lied. This is agreeable writing with a calm disposition. A real attraction for me is that it is not always easy to predict where the writing will go next, like a bird hopping from tree to bush and from meadow to brook. Three main sections in the second movement marked Langsam – Marsch und BeschlußPastorale-Ruhig (Slow March and Decision Pastoral-Peaceful) have been described as ‘like character pieces’. Bassoonist Gilbert Audin is clearly in his element with the various moods, tempi and tonal colouration of the score. All is not unalloyed enjoyment, however, as the perceptive Audin unveils an undertow of dark, unsettled skies.

1939 was a productive time for Hindemith: his output included six sonatas. The Clarinet Sonata, which he wrote in just over a week, is now one of the best-known works in the clarinet repertoire. The four-movement score ensures that the scope of the instrument is not too broad nor the writing over-difficult, so the work is a possibility for an amateur player. Two movements stand out for me. The brisk second movement Lebhaft (Vivace, Lively) resounds with rhythmic impetus. The instruments rarely play simultaneously, and sound like fearfully duelling rivals. The impressive fourth movement is marked Kleines Rondo (Little Rondo), and Gemächlich surely refers to the blithe character of the writing. Rhythmic with staccato passages, the movement has a witty, rather mischievous character. Clarinettist Paul Meyer is on fine form. He adeptly displays a splendid palette of tone colour and textures, distinctly attentive to the piano part.

Hindemith wrote the Horn Sonata in F major in 1939 and a Sonata for Four French Horns in 1952. Between the two comes the distinctive and enigmatic Sonata for E♭ Tenor Horn, published by Schott. The title page of the score reads “Sonate für Althorn in Es und Klavier (auch Waldhorn oder Alt-Saxophon)”; that is to say, Sonata for Alto Horn (Mellophone) in E♭ and Piano (French Horn or Alto Saxophone). The Sonata has by far the most interesting musical history of the five pieces in this album. It was written in 1943 in the USA, where Hindemith had emigrated in 1940 and found a teaching job at Yale University. A sonata for a brass instrument is uncommon in classical music, so Hindemith and his publisher sensibly decided to increase the performing possibilities of the work by sanctioning alternatives such as French horn or alto saxophone. Quite unusually, the score includes Hindemith’s original short poem Das Posthorn (Zwiegespräch) – ideally intended for narration by the players but spoken here by actors – which serves as an introduction to the fourth movement. Unconventionally, the score has some numerological connections pertaining to five and eleven, and the second movement contains a repeated Morse code sequence N-K-A-W. It appears that no record of the premiere has survived.

Marked Lebhaft (Vivace, Lively) the second movement is appealing for its imaginative use of the tenor horn’s colour palette, which soloist Radovan Vlatković produces in spades. His playing of this brisk movement is upbeat and high-spirited. I am also drawn to the following brief movement Sehr langsam (Very slow); the shadowy atmosphere is captivating.

All five works were recorded in Munich. Congratulations are due to the recording engineers for the clarity and balance they achieved. Denis Verroust’s pleasing booklet essay The Quintet in Sonatas contains helpful information. These are worthwhile and accessible twentieth-century wind sonatas, brilliantly played.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Stephen Barber

Éric Le Sage (piano)
Les Vents Français
Emmanuel Pahud (flute)
François Leleux (oboe)
Paul Meyer (clarinet)
Gilbert Audin (bassoon)
Radovan Vlatković (horn)

The 4th movement of the Horn Sonata contains a poem, Das Posthorn, spoken by Luka Vlatković and Josephine Bloéb.

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