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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, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
WARNER CLASSICS 9029504441 [61:37]

Although Hindemith’s own instrument was the viola, on which he performed professionally, he could play every orchestral instrument. Between 1935 and 1955 he formed and carried out a project to write a sonata for every orchestral instrument with piano. He wanted to fill gaps in the repertoire and to provide suitable material, especially for young people. These sonatas do not aim to be virtuosic; ironically, it is the piano parts which sometimes are particularly challenging. There are twentysix of these sonatas and they have become repertory staples for each of their instruments.

Here we have five, for the four main orchestral woodwind instrument and one outsider, which I shall come to. They are mostly in a kind of loose sonata or ternary form. There is considerable variation in mood and pace, and Hindemith has carefully studied the character of each instrument, for example sending the flute high with piano part lower in pitch, or taking into account the breath control issues for the oboe. Part of Hindemith’s aim was to familiarise himself in greater detail with the instruments in preparation for writing what he saw as his magnum opus, the opera Die Harmonie der Welt.

The Flute Sonata, in three movements begins in Hindemith’s characteristic vein of angular lyricism. There is a slow movement with a great sense of serenity and then a perky finale rather in the Prokofiev manner.

The Oboe Sonata is in two movements, the first opening in a whimsical and witty manner with tricksy rhythms and then having a middle section in a quite different mood. The second movement is much longer and goes through several alternations of fast and slow, rather in the grave and beautiful manner of Hindemith’s ballet Nobilissima Visione, which he had recently completed.

The Clarinet Sonata is in four movements, beginning in a discursive manner somewhat reminiscent of Brahms’s clarinet sonatas. There is then a playful scherzo with a slightly sinister aspect, a slow movement with the kind of acrid and austere beauty which the composer specialized in, and a cheerful finale.

The Bassoon Sonata is in two short movements, the first rather romantic and the second in a variety of moods ending in a pastoral manner. (The original bassoonist arrived late for the premiere, only to find that the composer had borrowed a bassoon and was playing it himself, though he then handed over the part.)

Finally, we have, not the Horn Sonata of 1939, as one might expect, but the 1943 work written for the Althorn (alto horn or old horn). This is not an orchestral instrument but a brass band one of the saxhorn type, which sometimes replaces the French horn in bands. The tone is slightly freer and more open than the French horn. (Confusingly, in Britain and in the booklet here it is known as the tenor horn, which properly is a deeper instrument, such as Mahler used in his seventh symphony.) This instrument is a rarity, but you can see a demonstration of it here and read an article about Hindemith’s sonata here. Hindemith himself owned an althorn and there is a picture of him playing it in the booklet accompanying this recording. However, he later sanctioned performances on the orchestral French horn and also the alto saxophone. Here we have it on the French horn.

Whatever it is played on, it is a fine work, in four movements with a curious interlude before the finale. The first movement plays to the horn’s strengths with long sustained notes and hints of horn calls. There is then a scherzo and a very short slow movement. Before the finale, Hindemith instructs the players to recite a poem he wrote about the significance of the horn and the need to keep hold of the things of value. This the players do here. The text with English and French translations is provided. The finale then begins with a fast and furious passage on the piano before the horn enters and calms things down.

The players here, a largely French team, offer superb performances. So much for players needing to come from the same country as the works they play. The flautist Emanuel Pahud and the clarinettist Paul Metyer are probably the best known but they are all good, and Eric le Sage copes with the often tricky piano parts with aplomb. The recording has a nice bloom and the booklet gives useful background to the works but says nothing about the performers.

There are, of course other recordings of all these works, often based on the instrument rather than the composer. You can get the althorn sonata on an actual althorn on a disc from Harmonia Mundi (HMC905271) in which Alexander Melnikov is the pianist, with a group of Hindemith sonatas which don’t otherwise overlap with this disc. And there has recently come out a two-disc set from Brilliant Classics (catalogue 95755) from an Italian team, which includes not only all those here (the althorn sonata on a saxophone) and those for brass as well. However, if you content yourself with the programme here you will be well rewarded.

Stephen Barber
Emmanuel Pahud, flute, Francois Leleux, oboe, Paul Meyer, clarinet, Radovan Vlatković, French horn), Eric le Sage (piano)

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