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CD Review

Paul Hindemith

Piano Music

  • Ludus Tonalis
  • Suite "1922"
John McCabe, piano
Hyperion CDA66824 69:13
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Jekyll and Hyde.

I have no idea why the music of Hindemith currently lies under such a cloud, other than there's a lot of it and it's easier to ignore it than to engage with it. In a way, Hindemith made a huge career mistake by setting himself as the polemic opposite to Schoenberg and dodecaphony – the anti-Schoenberg – because he mistakenly believed that tonality was "natural." As a result he became a punching bag for the other side, which excommunicated him from the One True Church of Modernism and buried his music. Ironically, late Schoenberg and late Hindemith sound very much alike, never mind the procedures they use. But it's been years since serialism had anything like a hegemony among composers. Why Hindemith's reputation should still languish in the cellar remains a mystery to me.

There's a lot of good, even great Hindemith music to catch up with. Of course, his two hits, the Symphonic Metamorphoses and the Mathis der Maler Symphony, continue to draw recordings, but works that should stand among the best of the last century go begging: the Philharmonic Concerto, the Konzertmusiken, the Symphonies in E-flat and B-flat, the ballet St. Francis, concertos for clarinet, horn, trumpet and bassoon, cello, and violin, chamber operas, chamber music in general, oratorios, short choruses, and much more. I can't say everything I've heard struck me as undeservedly neglected, but I can say it of the majority. Music of such depth, wit, craft, and sheer tonal beauty doesn't come along so often that we can afford to ignore it.

This CD gives us glimpses of Hindemith at two quite different stages of his career. Hindemith began under the influence of Brahms and Reger. After World War I, he got caught up in various artistic movements of the Twenties: Dada, jazz, Expressionism, and the Young (or New) Classicism, a German phenomenon distinct from the Paris brand launched by Stravinsky. Where Stravinsky tended to model his works on Handel and, mainly, Mozart, Hindemith looked to Bach. Expressionism, jazz, and Dada mostly fell away. Bach stayed. Hindemith wasn't content to imitate. He, to a large extent, forged his own harmonic language – one based on fourths, rather than on the usual thirds. In the Fifties, he changed again, with an expanded view of tonality – one which, incidentally, attempted to synthesize harmonic practice from modality through dodecaphony.

The Suite "1922" comes from the title year and out of Twenties experimentalism. The movements include a march, nocturne, and three based popular pre-jazz dances – shimmy (a type of fox trot), Boston (a slow jazzy waltz), and ragtime. To some extent, Hindemith is kicking over trashcans, for the sheer love of noise and shock. He instructs the player to treat the piano as a odd sort of percussion instrument, rather than as the vehicle of Chopinesque song. The shock has by now worn away. Hindemith himself hinted to his publisher Willy Strecker at Schott that the firm needn't reissue the set, although he shied away from straightforward withdrawal. I've always liked the rambunctious Suite. The lack of shock now allows a listener to concentrate on the music itself, rather than on its appropriateness. The march, ragtime, and the outer sections of the shimmy clatter and crash into things, heavy-footed with thick chords, far from Hindemith's mature piano writing. The Nachtstück movement interests me the most, for it has more in common with the composer Hindemith eventually became. Mostly spare, quiet, and melancholy, it nevertheless surely builds to a brief outcry before it recedes again.

Ludus Tonalis (the tonal game) appeared 20 years later, during Hindemith's American exile, musically one of his most fruitful periods. It is a series of 12 three-part fugues separated by "interludes" and framed by a "Preludium" and a "Postludium." The postlude is the prelude played upside-down and backwards. Each fugue is in one of the 12 chromatic key centers, and Hindemith very carefully works out the placement of each. The interludes – character-pieces, really – modulate from the previous key center to the new. The fugues display a wealth of contrapuntal techniques, including double and triple fugues, palindromic fugues, various "learned" canonic procedures. Hindemith composed the work as a kind of summa of his theories of tonality and aesthetics. He very clearly wants us to consider the score as a modern equivalent of Bach's Art of the Fugue. Actually, I can think of few composers who could conceive of a work like this. Hindemith regarded it as pointing to a way out of the "chaos" of Modernism. However, in fifteen years, his notions of tonality and aesthetics would change. Frankly, I think Hindemith's extra-musical concerns have become less relevant with the years, but I still consider the score one of the greatest of its time. It's not a matter of all that awesome counterpoint, but that, like Bach, the counterpoint serves to make exciting music. My favorite fugue is probably the serene third in F, which happens to be palindromic. It sounds the same played forward or backwards; the sequence of notes reverses in the middle. As interesting as that may be, the fugue's poetry impresses more.

Despite the sometime advocacy of Glenn Gould, there hasn't been the recording tradition for Hindemith's piano music as deep as, say, that of Debussy or Prokofieff. Consequently, rating the excellent John McCabe as the best I've heard (which he certainly is) doesn't mean much. McCabe not only gives you the architecture of these works, but also an imaginative use of color, something often missing from other accounts. Hyperion's sound lies well within today's acceptable standard. For some reason, the CD insists on billing the piano as a "Fazioli piano," certainly high-end, but why take the trouble?

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.