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Against all odds, I first heard the Hindemith Kammermusik #1 live at a chamber-music festival. For one thing, modern music doesn't get done all that much in chamber concerts, and for another, Hindemith had reached probably his lowest point in critical estimation by the time the concert took place (the mid-Seventies). But this festival was unusual, in that the performers played what they would have played at home, without considerations of box-office. I also encountered for the first time the delightful Saint-Saëns septet, with its goofy trumpet part among the usual winds, strings, and piano. Don't get me wrong, the programs didn't consist solely of gargoyles and gnomes. Enough Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart remained for everybody, although I admit those tended to be the concerts I missed. At any rate, I fell in love with the Hindemith, and fortunately a beautiful album soon appeared of all seven Kammermusiken on Telefunken LPs, with Jaap Schröder, Paul Doktor, and the Concerto Amsterdam.
Hindemith's Kammermusiken (Kammermusik means literally "chamber music" and by extension "chamber-music piece"; Kammermusiken is the plural) have been lucky in their integral recordings. In addition to Schröder (no longer in print), you also have Riccardo Chailly on Decca (currently obtainable from ArkivMusic.com) and now Abbado on EMI. There's also a set led by Werner Andreas Albert on CPO, but I haven't heard it. Frankly, with Chailly and Abbado available, I have no urge to check it out. Albert's Hindemith series has been capable, valuable mainly for recording rarities in the composer's output. However, the familiar pieces are better done by others better known, as you might expect.
The Kammermusiken come from a transitional part of Hindemith's huge output – just after his Expressionist and nose-thumbing phase and into his neoclassic period. In fact, you might say it begins with burlesque and ends in Bach. Although Hindemith came to view these seven works as a whole, he actually wrote them in spurts from 1921 to 1927. As he went along, critics began to think of them as his versions of Bach's Brandenburgs. Scored for smaller ensembles and usually a solo instrument (#1 is the only not to use this arrangement), they play with various instrumental combinations and often with Baroque concerto grosso form. Gone is the super-large Romantic orchestra with its filigree upon filigree. Hindemith emphasizes counterpoint, clean, clear textures, and strong rhythms. Listening to these works is like viewing a Brancusi sculpture.
Kammermusik #1, written for Hindemith's Donaueschingen Festival of Modern music in 1921, shows the high spirits with which his career began and which often came out in his contributions to those programs. This work will probably surprise those who know only Hindemith's "monumental" vein, like Nobilissima Visione or the Symphony "Mathis der Maler". It begins with a burst of fireworks, fanfares, and bells. It then moves on to a perky little march. The oddly beautiful third movement, "Quartet," consists of an flute, clarinet, bassoon, and triangle as the fourth "member." It mainly proceeds mainly in duets, punctuated with soft dings on the triangle, with all three winds briefly joining together at the end. It sounds a little goofy and can bring an uneasy smile to a listener's face. The score ends as raucously as it began, in what sounds to me like a neat musical depiction of a train with Stravinskian off-accented chugs.
The Kammermusik #2, a piano concerto, stands about as far away from the Romantic heroic concerto as one can get. The composer once again emphasizes the play between lines of music as well as the usual solo-ensemble contrast. Written three years after its predecessor, it shows Hindemith in less of a mood to kid around. Yet, in the solemn slow movement, a cheeky quick bit almost surrealistically flits through, like the stub of a bus ticket or a man chasing his wind-blown hat down the street. Furthermore, the penultimate movement, "Potpourri," reverts to the vein of the first Kammermusik, with a trumpet riff that resembles a street taunt. The finale, a kind of a generally vigorous gigue, occasionally has trouble finding its footing. The movement ends in a fugato which foreshadows Hindemith mature style.
Also from 1924, Kammermusik #3 was written as a concerto for Hindemith's cellist brother Rudolf. In many ways, it follows the conventions of the four-movement Baroque concerto (slow-fast-slow-fast) the most closely of the set. It's a fine piece. Its only problem is that it doesn't come up to Hindemith's cello concerto of 1940. Few concerti do.
Kammermusik #4 (1925) for solo violin, wind and brass ensemble, and percussion (mostly the small drums of a jazz kit) uses a Romantic concerto solo-ensemble relationship within the confines of a neoclassical idiom. The movements generally run longer than the previous entries in the series and there are five of them, more than any other concerto in the set. The heavy wind sound reminds me of the Weill violin concerto (1924), although Hindemith eschews Weill's post-Mahler language. The composer apparently wants to expand his emotional range. However, this was not the path down which he would go. I suspect that he was inspired by the playing of his violinist friend and colleague Licco Amar, who on the basis of the music written for him, had an especially lyric tone, flexible fingers, and a penchant for long phrases and bringing out a work's architecture. This comes out particularly in the slow second movement and in the fact that throughout the concerto, the violin rarely has to cut through an instrumental tutti. The concerto ends arrestingly in a headlong, quiet perpetuum mobile.
Kammermusiken #5 and #6 both appeared in 1927. For viola and viola d' amore, Hindemith wrote them for his own use as a performing virtuoso. Kammermusik #5, dedicated to Hindemith's teacher Arnold Mendelssohn, great-nephew of the composer, strikes me as the key piece of the series – the one that distills the series down to its essence. It's a vital, concentrated work of hard-hitting rhythms, reminiscent of Bach's violin concerti, especially in the opening movement. The slow second is in A-B-A form, with a long-breathing lyrical section surrounding a more determined middle. A fugal scherzo – not particularly light-hearted – follows, and the concerto ends with "Variations on a Military March." I don't know the march in question, and frankly I can't pick it out all that well from the extremely active (though always clear) contrapuntal texture.
Hindemith had a special fondness for the viola d' amore, an instrument that had almost gone the way of the rebec and serpent by the time he got hipped on it. Indeed, he's probably the major composer for that instrument, although I've heard only two pieces – this one and a sonata. Furthermore, he doesn't seem to have spurred other composers to a major revival. In four continuous movements, this concerto seems more relaxed than the previous one, but only comparatively. It's less aggressive and more inward – fewer virtuosic contrapuntal sections, more emphasis on a single melodic line. Nevertheless, one still can sense Hindemith stretching in the direction of greater expressiveness. The third movement, "Variations," interests me most. It mainly provides cadenza opportunities for the soloist. It's one of the few cadenzas that conveys the feel of improvisation, although the variation structure keeps everything in good order. This slides into a quicker, livelier recap of the main theme of the first movement, and the concerto ends cheerfully.
Hindemith composed the final Kammermusik (for organ and chamber ensemble) also in 1927 for the dedication of a new organ at Radio Frankfurt. It certainly gives off a sense of festive occasion. The first movement foreshadows some of the composer's music of the Thirties and Forties, especially things like the Konzertmusik for Brass, piano, and harp and the Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes of Weber. The slow second movement turns over most of its time to the solo organ, with an occasional wind solo thrown in for variety. The finale, a fuguish rondo, has the ensemble dealing with the subject and the organ usually filling in the episodes. Only late in the movement does the organ actually sound the subject in a rouser of an ending.
The Viola Concerto "Der Schwanendreher" (1935; "the swan turner") is Hindemith's first mature concerto, or at least his first for soloist and full, if modest, orchestra. Hindemith had just completed his opera Mathis der Maler, which takes place during the Peasants' War (1524-25), and picked up an interest in tunes of the period. Each of the movements is based on one or more tunes: first, "Zwischen Berg und tiefen Tal" (between the mountain and the deep valley); second, "Nun Laube, Linden, Laube" (roughly, now, arbor of lindens) and "Der Gutzgauch auf dem Zaune saß" (the cuckoo sat on the fence); third, "Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher?" (aren't you the swan-roaster?). I have sung all these texts but apparently to tunes that differ from the ones Hindemith uses. Consequently, I find it difficult to indulge in the extra pleasure of recognizing the old favorites the composer probably intended and deal with this concerto as I would with any other. The first movement immediately strikes us with its greater richness of sound, compared to the Kammermusiken, as it proceeds in a solemn march, strongly reminiscent of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphony, with much double- and triple-stopping from the solo viola. Throughout the concerto, one marks a greater artistic assurance. Hindemith has left behind the occasional roughness and aesthetic turgidity of the Twenties behind. The slow movement, one of the most winning Hindemith ever wrote, begins with a beautiful duet between solo viola and harp. This alternates with "Laube, Linden, Laube" harmonized in chorale style. "Der Gutzgauch" provides a merry, contrasting middle which leads at its climax to the chorale tune. The movement closes out with the opening material against a slowed-down version of the chorale tune. The concerto ends, again in Hindemith's "merry" vein, with a lively set of variations on "Der Schwanendreher," practically guaranteed to light you up and get you in the proper frame of mind for big round of applause.
You can't go wrong with either Chailly or Abbado in the Kammermusiken. Abbado is drier, but that could be due to his engineers. Even so, the music can take it, and you can follow the counterpoint throughout. I prefer the Chailly only because of the warmer sound. I've heard three recordings of Der Schwanendreher, the first an LP with Paul Doktor and, I believe, Edward Downes, no longer available. You can forget about it. It's okay, and with a musician as fine as Doktor, okay disappoints. My previous favorite was Daniel Benyamini (anybody know what happened to him?) and Daniel Barenboim leading the Orchestre de Paris (still in print with some fantastic Hindemith performances by William Steinberg and the Boston). However, I think Zimmermann and Shallon edge that one out. All the textures are clear, rhythm is precise, and it's one of the few Hindemith recordings that for once doesn't treat the man as an unfeeling composing automaton. Highly recommended overall.
Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz.