Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphonia serena (1946) [31:20]
Symphonie Die Harmonie der Welt (1951) [35:10]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. April 1996 (Serena), June 1997 (Harmonie), Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
DECCA 458 899-2 [67:03]
Hindemith is not generally thought of as a symphonist, but he wrote six works in the form, though they have never, as far as I know, been brought together in one collection. His best-known symphony is the first, Mathis der Maler, which was written for, and later incorporated in, the opera of that name. Here we have two of his later symphonies.
The Symphonia Serena was written in 1946 to a commission from the Dallas Symphony orchestra. By this time Hindemith had settled in the United States, taken American citizenship and was teaching at Yale. After his troubles with the Nazis and some time spent in Turkey and Switzerland his life now seemed settled and the war was over. He had also rethought his musical language, written a book about it and written Ludus Tonalis for piano to demonstrate it. No wonder he felt able to write a serene symphony. It is in four movements, beginning with a horn call. The first movement is full of good ideas, including an amazing passage in which first a cor anglais, then a piccolo sing above an accompaniment on woodblocks, bass drum and pizzicato strings. The second movement is scored only for wind instruments and is based on a march Beethoven composed in 1809 for the army. This is a playful scherzo. The third movement is, by contrast, for strings alone, divided into half, alternating between bowed and pizzicato playing and each with an offstage violin and viola, properly credited here. The finale is boisterous and cheerful, with the opening theme appearing again at the end.
The Symphonie Die Harmonie der Welt repeats the practice Hindemith had used with Mathis der Maler, being a symphony which uses materials later incorporated in the opera of that name. Hindemith had long planned an opera on the life of the astronomer Kepler. Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion and also speculated about the music of the spheres and harmonic ratios in the movements of the planets. The opera follows the events of Kepler’s life and contrasts the harmony of the universe with the disharmony of human life. The opera finally appeared in 1957, had a mixed reception and is only occasionally revived, though it has been recorded. The symphony, on the other hand, has been recognized as one of Hindemith’s most powerful works; Furtwängler thought it the composer’s best orchestral composition. It is in three movements. The opening movement, Musica Instrumentalis, opens with a trumpet motif and then leads to a march, a scherzo and a string melody; the coda combines music from three different sections. The slow movement, Musica Humana, draws on music dealing with the relationships of the characters. There are two main themes, on the strings and on the oboe, which are then played together.
The finale, Musica Mundana, presents the music of the spheres using a fugato, then a passacaglia leading to an impressive coda.
Blomstedt has been a strong advocate for Hindemith. In the 1990s he made three recordings of his music, two with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra during his tenure there, and this one with the Gewandhausorchester after he moved to Leipzig. These three discs were issued by Decca, then combined as one of their Trios, but this has, in its turn, been deleted. Fortunately, all three discs are now available again thanks to Presto’s reissue programme. They have all been well received and this one certainly does these works proud, with the works being both well articulated and held together while being confidently and eloquently played. The recording is excellent and the sleevenotes helpful; they include the main themes of the Harmonie der Welt symphony in Hindemith’s own musical handwriting.
For comparison I had Yan Pascal Tortelier’s slightly earlier (1993) coupling of the same two works with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos. I expected to find Tortelier to be slightly but definitely inferior to Decca’s starrier team, but to my surprise found there was little or nothing in it. Tortelier has also been a champion of Hindemith, recording no fewer than six discs of his music during his time with the BBC Philharmonic, all of which remain happily still available. Those who want to explore Hindemith beyond the Mathis der Maler symphony and the one or two other works of his which are best known, would do well with either of these.