HINDEMITH: Sonatas for Viola and Piano = Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4; Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 25, No. 4; Sonata for Viola and Piano (1939) – Geraldine Walther, viola/ David Korevaar, p. – MSR Classics MS 11593, 57:32 ****:
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was one of the world’s great viola virtuosos of his era, premiering Walton’s Viola Concerto in 1929. So, it was natural that Hindemith the composer was attracted to the viola. But it also matched the composer’s personality. Albert Einstein once said of Hindemith: “He is unwilling to exploit his feelings publicly and he keeps his two feet on the ground. He merely writes music, the best that he can produce.” While the viola may be less overtly expressive than its string siblings, the violin and cello, there’s a combination of melody and modern musical depth that makes these sonatas for viola and piano attractive to the chamber music lover.
The early (1919) Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11 starts with a folk-like romantic Fantasie that’s followed by seven variations. There’s a quiet pastoral segment, a raucous departure, and an ardent variation that’s followed by a four note piano ostinato that leads to an intense climax. The third movement has more variations, and a fugato that is played “with a strange clumsiness.” It’s a popular and stimulating work that contains surprises that intrigues the listener as well as several virtuoso opportunities that challenge violist. Walther meets these with aplomb.
The Viola Sonata, Op. 25, No. 4, was composed only three years later but represents Hindemith’s flirtation with modernism. Although never atonal, this period saw some funky works, such as his one act opera Hin Und Zuruck (Here and Back) (1927). That’s a dramatic palindrome that depicts a soprano riding an exercise bicycle, twirling Indian clubs and accepting a gift of boxing gloves. This and other works gave Hindemith the reputation of being the darling of the German musical avant-garde. Reminiscent of Bartokian driving rhythms, the first movement’s dissonance is contrasted by plaintive musings by the viola. The middle movement is lyrical and quietly somber. The last movement is dissonant and fast, with a quieter, yet obsessive interlude that gradually accelerates to a crescendo that’s very exciting.
The 1939 Sonata for Viola was one of several works that Hindemith composed while travelling on a train in the United States between concerts. He had fled Nazi Germany in 1938 with his wife, settling in Switzerland, finally moving to America in 1939. The music represents his mature style, a combination of lyricism interspersed with interludes of dissonant drama that was both accessible and modern, but never atonal. Anyone who knows Hindemith’s wonderful Violin Concerto will recognize thematic material in the first movement. It’s in the classic sonata form, noble in its conflict between the viola’s melodic yearning and the piano’s driving discord. A light hearted scherzo follows, with a playful dialogue between viola and piano showcasing the composer’s humor. A Phantasie features the viola’s free-wheeling, achingly lyrical search for significance. The meaning is found in the theme and variations of the finale. Melody and flitting, dancing chords contradict each other. Resolution is in the form of a carefree march, which powerfully hurtles toward the conclusion.
Geraldine Walther was the beloved Principal Violist with the San Francisco Symphony for twenty-nine years before becoming the Violist of the Takacs Quartet in 2005. She studied with the eminent violist Lillian Fuchs (1901- 1995) and Walther’s warm and soulful performances here owe a debt to her teacher. This is another disc that reinforces the significance of Paul Hindemith as one of the 20th century’s great composers.