Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Hindemith Chamber Music

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano (1938) [27:50]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1939) [18:43]
Drei leichte Stüke fot Cello and Piano (1938) [6:24]
Quintet for Clarinet, two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Op.30 (1955) [20:34]
Annette von Hehn and Elisabeth Glass, Violins
Hartmut Rohde, Viola
Frank Dodge, Cello
Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer, Clarinet
Ya-Fei Chuang, Piano
Recorded at the Siemens Villa, Berlin, Germany, on 10th and 11th March, 2009 Stereo DDD
NAXOS 8.572213 [73:31]

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Hindemith’s music has been more susceptible than most to the changing currents of musical taste since the war. He was certainly a versatile composer, as the stylistic range of the works on this disc demonstrates, but the English-speaking world has yet to embrace the composer in the same way as German audiences, apprehensive of both his reputation for dispassionate Modernism and the openly functional nature of his educational works.

This recording does little to dispel those prejudices. Each work presents a different perspective on the composer’s inner dialectic between Brahmsian Romantic expression and 20th century austerity. In the first work, the Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano (1938), the two forces compete as expressive linear melody versus ice-cold clarity of ensemble. Hindemith’s use of instrumental colour to separate these lines is masterful, and is never taken to excess, giving the unusual grouping a sense of inner logic. The clarinet is the instrument that links nearly all the works on this disc, but it is Hindemith’s use of the strings, the violin and especially the cello, that really elevates this music. The cello has a natural expressivity that forms the ideal compliment to Hindemith’s austerity. The cellist here is Frank Dodge, the founder of Spectrum Concerts Berlin, at which the recording was made. He brings both an elegant tone and a suppleness of phrasing to this music, and his playing across the range of the instrument is well served by the recorded sound - courtesy of German Radio.

The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano of 1939 comes from the composer’s impressive and still unmatched series of sonatas for every instrument of the orchestra. What is fascinating to me about this music is how difficult it is to gauge its indebtedness to Brahms. He is certainly there, in the wide ranging clarinet part, the way that phrases occasionally tail off with a sigh, and the disciplined yet atmospheric accompaniment figurations. This is another fine performance, well balanced, musically phrased, and finding a surprising amount of expressive potential in Hindemith’s occasionally Spartan textures.

The Three Easy Pieces for Cello and Piano from 1938 is a curious inclusion. It is very much an educational work, gebrauchsmusik in the strictest sense. As such, I can’t help the feeling that it would be better suited to an exam syllabus than a chamber music recording. On the other hand, Hindemith himself was committed to the principle that functionality and artistry need not be mutually exclusive in music. But whatever the justification for their inclusion, these brief works are convincingly rendered, Frank Dodge again putting his seductive cello tone at Hindemith’s service.

The final work on the disc is the Quintet for Clarinet, two Violins, Viola and Cello Op. 30. This work was written in 1923, but substantially revised for its first publication in 1955. It is substantially more complex than the other works on the disc, with five movements alternating fast and slow. The faster movements present a range of prickly textures, the first in particular combining pizzicato strings, driving ostinatos and an erratic clarinet line. The slow movements have a delicacy that is rare in Hindemith’s music, with expressive solos supported by the barest minimum of supporting textures.

Overall, the disc is well performed and well recorded. The packaging conforms to recent Naxos conventions, and like Hindemith himself, the company is apparently unconcerned about compromising artistic principles with bare functionality. Clarinettists may be interested in the works on this CD, and Hindemith’s important contributions to the instrument’s chamber repertoire are excellently served here. But for a composer who divides opinion so sharply, this disc is unlikely to win any new converts to his cause. At the end of the day, you either love it or Hindemith. 

Gavin Dixon

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