HINDEMITH: Complete Music for Viola and Orchestra = Konzertmusik, Op. 48; Der Schawnendreher; Trauermusik; Kammermusik No. 5, Op. 36 No. 4 – Lawrence Power, viola / BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / David Atherton – Hyperion CDA67774, 72:54 *****:
This is the third volume in Hyperion’s survey of Hindemith’s complete music for viola. I haven’t caught up with the first two yet, but if the musicianship matches in quality the playing on offer here, those volumes will be worth hearing as well.
I have to say that among modern musical masters, Hindemith is one that I’m somewhat ambivalent about. His most often-heard compositions, such as Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber and Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, are justly popular, finding a way to merge the composer’s typically severe, motoric neoclassicism with more lyrical impulses and passages of unbuttoned, jazz-inflected rhythmic freedom. But much of his music, including the well-known Mathis der Mahler Symphony, I admire more than outright enjoy. In this work, Hindemith doesn’t seem willing to bend to the sheer pictorial demands of the program he outlines; I don’t really see that angelic concert of the first movement or the demons tormenting poor Saint Anthony in the final one. An atmospheric pall seems to hang over the symphony. Part of the problem is that Hindemith’s music evolved as a patent reaction to the excesses of late-Romanticism—maybe an overreaction, since emotional investment in the notes he set down on paper sometimes seems wanting.
That’s especially a problem for me in Hindemith’s Kamermusik No. 5 (1927). The first and last movements jog along with his typical neo-Baroque bustle that mixes polyphony with hard-driving ostinato patterns. The toccata-like third movement is so all about rhythm that it reminds me of Ravel’s wry observation that his Bolero was one of his most popular compositions but unfortunately contained no music. Karmmermusik No. 5 is Hindemith at his most forbiddingly objectivist, as the notes to the recording style him. But then again, at the heart of the work is the hushed, near-mystical Langsam, where Hindemith hints at the depth of feeling he sometimes allows himself in his music.
Fortunately, the composer increasingly let himself go. The other works on this disc evince a growing freedom from the anti-Romantic constraints he applied to his earlier compositions. Konzertmusik of 1930 still has those busy, Bach-inspired outer movements, but there is music of greater introspection as well, such as the Ruhig gehend second movement, and music with a more personal touch, such as the lightly marching Leicht bewegt, which is for me Hindemith at his smiling best.
Hindemith shows himself even more capable of unwinding in the whimsical Der Schwanendreher (1935), his only bona fide concerto for viola, based on medieval folk songs. The Schwanendreher of the title refers to the song on which the last movement is based. It tells the story of a “swan-turner,” the guy at a feast who was tasked with turning a roasting swan on the spit. Hindemith imagined the viola soloist as an itinerant musician who would show up at such a feast, share his tunes, and then accompany the dancing that would cap the festivities. The result is one of Hindemith’s most quietly charming (and delicately scored) works—along with the eloquently elegiac Trauermusik of the following year, the composer’s most often heard contribution to the slim repertoire of works for viola and orchestra.
So while not all this music is equally appealing to me, I find the best music compelling indeed. Certainly, these are some of the finest performances it has received on disc. Recently I got to hear Lawrence Power’s recording of the Bartók Viola Concerto, along with works by Tibor Szerly and Miklos Rósza, and thought it was by far the most convincing performance I’d ever heard. (The whole program on Hyperion CDA67687 is a revelation; I highly recommend it.) Thus I was already a fan when this Hindemith disc came along. I’m still just as impressed with Power’s security of tone, orotund sound projection, and ability to capture perfectly those moments of intense lyricism or inwardness. This is wonderful playing by any standard. Under modern-music specialist David Atherton, the BBC Scottish Orchestra aids and abets Power fully, with playing of fervor and delicacy, as called for.
Hyperion’s close-up sound reinforces the Baroque-styled concerto grosso atmosphere that prevails in Hindemith’s concerted music. Power is still front and center, of course, but the orchestra is given such prominence that the violist emerges as primus inter pares—a valid approach by the engineers, I think. This disc will probably end up on a lot of reviewers’ recordings of the year list, including my own.
– Lee Passarella