PAUL HINDEMITH: ‘The Complete Piano Concertos’ = Idil Biret, p./Yale Sym. Orch./Toshiyuki Shimada – Naxos (2 CDs)

by | Nov 15, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

PAUL HINDEMITH: ‘The Complete Piano Concertos’ = Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps; Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments); Piano Music with Orchestra; Chamber Music No. 2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass; Concerto for Piano and Orch. – Idil Biret, p./Yale Sym. Orch./Toshiyuki Shimada – Naxos 8.573201-02 (10/29/13), 2:16:15 (2 CDs) ***1/2:

I have always enjoyed the music of the mid-twentieth violist, theoretician and composer, Paul Hindemith. As a composer, Hindemith’s style is a direct outgrowth of his theories on musical structure and harmony, as he wrote of in The Craft of Musical Composition. Hindemith stressed what, for him, were the two critical physical phenomena, the overtone series and the combination tones. In part, his harmonic structure depended on a very careful and systematic selection of pitches based on their position in an overtone series (which he referred to as Series 1) and as a sequence of intervals built on the full chromatic scale, arranged in increasing order of dissonance (in his system, Series 2).

This is only fascinating to those who study Hindemith’s music or like analyzing why his music sounds unlike anyone else’s. The fact that, to many, his music is unique is also why his music; despite some genuine masterworks, like his opera, Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter), remains a bit of a niche attraction.  Many – I am not one – find his music dry or cold or sterile or mathematical; as opposed to genuinely emotive and exciting.

This collection does present, in one very well-presented package, his piano and orchestra repertory. I think each of these works, covering a period in his life from 1923 to 1945, is quite interesting in their own right. In that order, the Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand) is a concise work that resembles the neo-classical Hindemith that some may find reminiscent of his Chamber Music. This is a very succinct sounding work that, interestingly, was written for Paul Wittgenstein, a virtuoso soloist who had lost his right arm while serving in World War I. The Chamber Music No. 2 was written shortly after the left hand work and also bears some of the same dryly propulsive qualities of the former, but also has a broader and more harmonically diverse sound to it. Some say that Hindemith was a bit influenced by the Vienna School (especially Berg) at this time.

The Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps was written in 1930 and is probably the most complex and harmonically dense of the works here. Hindemith had a life-long affinity for brass chorales and wrote well for them. There are moments in this substantial work that echo his Music for Brass and Strings. Some of Hindemith’s finest writing can be found in his typically “heavy” and ponderous slow movements, of which the third movement here, Sehr ruhig: Variationen, is a prime example.

He wrote his Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) as a ballet, with the unusual scoring of piano and strings, and it was first performed in this way in 1946 with choreography by George Balanchine. This work is based on scenes in Flemish artist Brueghel’s painting of “The Four Temperaments” (the ancient Greek notion of elements of human personality that can be attributed to balances or imbalances in bodily fluids). This is a long work that, like many of Hindemith’s scores, develops slowly but is beautiful in places and became one of his best known pieces, actually.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra stems from 1945 is a full three movement work that illustrates Hindemith’s development as a composer who relied consistently on his own unique approach to harmony and counterpoint but who became increasingly sophisticated with soloistic writing and even orchestration and counter melody. There are some lovely little solos throughout for wind instruments. The closing movement is particularly fascinating. Based on a fifteenth-century dance tune “Tre Fontane” (Three Fountains); it is a set of variations on the original melody that does not actually appear until the end of the work.

Going into this collection, I knew The Four Temperaments very well and had heard the Concerto (from 1945) before but the other works were pleasant and interesting discoveries. As I said, I am a great admirer of Hindemith’s works and have played many of his pieces before. I do not know if this collection will turn the completely uninitiated into a Hindemith fan.  I think the Symphony based on Mathis der Maler or the Music for Brass and Strings or Nobilissima Visione may be a better first exposure. But this is an essential addition for those who want these important works. The performances are superb. Soloist Idil Biret has made the Hindemith repertory a bit of a signature and the Yale Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Shimada is a superb ensemble.

—Daniel Coombs

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