HINDEMITH Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass, and Two Harps, op. 49. The Four Temperaments. Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), op. 29. Kammermusik No. 2 for Piano, Quartet, and Brass, op. 36/1. Piano Concerto • Idil Biret (pn); Toshiyuki Shimada, cond; Yale SO • Read more NAXOS 8.573201-02 (2 CDs: 136:15)
Idil Biret will be no stranger to readers; as one of Naxos’s most reliable house artists, she has recorded vast amounts of the piano repertoire for the label. The works on this two-CD set, however, may not be as familiar as she is. With the exception of The Four Temperaments, which has gained somewhat of a foothold on record and as a concert work—Hindemith was originally commissioned by George Balanchine in 1940 to produce a score for a ballet—the other four works on these discs may be new to all but those who are Hindemith devotees.
The title of the album, The Complete Piano Concertos, stretches the definition a bit of what constitutes a concerto, but Hindemith’s habit of writing for unusual combinations of instruments and setting them in somewhat unorthodox forms can make classifying his works subject to interpretation.
The program opens with the Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass, and Two Harps, commissioned by Elizabeth Coolidge Sprague and composed in 1930. The brass instruments called for in the “Brass” of the work’s title are four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, and tuba. In four movements, the piece is best described as being in Hindemith’s neobaroque style.
The Theme with Four Variations for Piano and Strings, commonly referred to as just The Four Temperaments, though originally intended to be choreographed for a ballet, works well as a concert piece because essentially it can be seen as a four-movement symphony with an introduction. The introduction in this case is the statement of the theme. Four variations (movements) follow, each representing one of the four temperaments or medieval humors—black bile for the melancholic, blood for the sanguine, phlegm for the phlegmatic, and yellow bile for the choleric. The bodily fluids are enough to conjure a scene from the embalming room in a mortuary, but Hindemith’s music is full of life and gorgeous sonorities.
As mentioned above, this is the main work in which Biret and the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s strings run into some significant competition in the numbers game. Two versions that have been long on my shelf are those by Carol Rosenberger with the strings of the Royal Philharmonic on Delos and Howard Shelley with the strings of BBC Philharmonic on Chandos. Biret on the present recording acquits herself well in the solo piano part, but the string players of the Yale orchestra, an ensemble made up of the university’s undergraduate students don’t play with quite the coordination and richness of tone as do their professional counterparts across the Pond.
Hindemith, like Ravel, was commissioned to write a piano work for the left hand by Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War. Quite a few other composers were enlisted in the enterprise as well, including Britten, Kornold, Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. They all complied, but Wittgenstein ended up not performing all the works he solicited. Hindemith’s contribution was Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand) composed in 1923. It has gained nowhere near the exposure of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand; in fact, at the moment ArkivMusic lists only one other recording besides this one, a 2008 live performance by Leon Fleisher with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra led by Christoph Eschenbach.
The Hindemith is a captivating score with a perky, jazzy first movement; a catchy, ostinato-driven second movement that periodically lapses into march-like, military fanfares; a haunting third movement in which the piano and a solo English horn (then later a solo flute) engage in a long, slow, lonely dance; and a Finale that once again is in the composer’s best neobaroque style.
The Kammermusik No. 2, for Piano, Quartet, and Brass, is the second in a series of seven Kammermusik works Hindemith promised to deliver to conductor Hermann Scherchen, who took an interest in promoting new music by contemporary composers of the period. It’s a bit difficult to categorize these works, for no two of them are scored for the same combination of instruments, but all of them feature a solo instrument and a varied ensemble of 11 or more players. Because the solo instrument—whether piano, cello, violin, viola, viola d’amore, or organ—is treated as it would be in a concerto, the seven works are loosely classified as chamber concertos, but the number of instruments in the orchestra pushes the definition of “chamber.” To confuse matters further, sandwiched in between the first and third of these seven Kammermusik scores, is a lone stray, if you will, that goes by the title, Kleine Kammermusik, so-called because it is scored for wind quintet with no soloist; yet it’s sometimes lumped together with its larger-scaled Kammermusik cousins.
All together then there are eight of these works, but the only recorded version I’m aware of that includes the whole shebang—and it’s an outstanding one—is the two-disc set by Riccardo Chailly leading members of the Royal Concertgebouw on Decca. If one or more readers are wondering why I’m omitting the equally excellent set by Claudio Abbado with members of the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI, it’s because that set, as well as all the others listed, include only the seven Kammermusik entries. Abbado fills out his set leading violist Tabea Zimmermann in an incomparably beautiful performance of Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher. But Chailly’s set, as far as I know, is unique in being the only one to include the lone Kleine Kammermusik score for wind quintet.
Perhaps it’s the other surveys that make more sense, because the Kleine Kammermusik is really a fish out of water that doesn’t go with the seven Kammermusik works. Still, it’s too delightful a piece to be without, and stand-alone recordings of it are mostly included on programs of wind quintet works by a mix of composers, though one, on Sony, does offer an all-Hindemith program of the composer’s other wind works.
Most of the Kammermusik scores fall into Hindemith’s neobaroque style, for which reason they have sometimes been branded the “Brandenburgs of the 20th century.” I wouldn’t push that analogy too far, though, for it may be apt to the extent that the writing is contrapuntal in nature and that each concerto is scored for a different combination of instruments, but in harmonic, rhythmic, and textural makeup the music is very Modernistic. This is not the type of neobaroque treatment one hears in a work like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which really is based on late Baroque and very early Classical models.
Finally, we come to Hindemith’s formally titled Piano Concerto of 1945, premiered by George Szell, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the pianist for whom the piece was written, Jesús Maria Sanromá. Hindemith composed the Concerto while vacationing in Maine and Connecticut. Of the five works on the disc, this is the latest written and, frankly, if you’re not already familiar with the piece, it’s the one that’s likely to take three or four hearings before you warm to it. It’s not that its musical language is any more Modernistic or difficult to comprehend than what has gone before; rather, it’s that the work seems to proceed episodically, with sections following each other that don’t seem, on the surface at least, to relate. Thus, the logic of the score is elusive.
Current competition is slim, and what there is of it is mostly not very current, with a 1948 performance led by Sergiu Celibidache and a First Edition recording by the Louisville Orchestra led by Lawrence Leighton Smith. The most recent version—aside from the one at hand—is by Werner Andreas Albert leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra on CPO, and even that one dates back more than a decade.
For Hindemith fans, this new Naxos collection of the composer’s complete works featuring a solo piano in combination with various instrumental ensembles will make an excellent addition to your collection, even if you already have some of these works on other recordings. For Hindemith novices and the curious, at Naxos’s bargain prices, this new two-disc set offers much very attractive and enjoyable music in excellent performances, and it may just inspire you to explore more of Hindemith’s output. Recommended.
Good, for HindemithMarch 9, 2014By Joe S. See All My Reviews"Warning: Do not listen to this whole CD at once, especially if you are personally iffy about Hindemith in the first place. There are some deep cuts on this album, and some of this stuff is Hindemith at his most dissatisfying and confusing. That being said, Yales website does a fantastic job of outlining the relationship between itself, Hindemith, and Turkey, the home country of the piano soloist, Idil Beret. I wont try and rehash it all here (http://news.yale.edu/2013/10/21/hindemith-concertos-performed-idil-biret-mark-yale-symphony-orchestra-s-first-major-label). Suffice it to say there is an important connection between them all, and this record is significant in that its the first collection of all Hindemiths piano concerti. The performances are great, the mix is very clear, and Beret is astoundingly good. Every once in a while, a moment pops out where the ensemble gets a bit behind or something and the thought bubble of This is an American university orchestra pops up in your head, taking you out of the moment, but all in all the performances are very clean and good."Report Abuse
Uneasy but emotionally thought provoking musicJanuary 1, 2014By Warren Harris See All My Reviews"The music of Paul Hindemith is always a bit of an adventure for me. As a contemporary composer, his works are typically not as pleasantly melodic as I tend to gravitate toward, although I always find something interesting about that sits in the back of my head with a youve really got to figure this out tag associated with it. This 2 disc recording of Hindemiths complete piano concertos, featuring Idil Biret (pf) and the Yale Symphony Orchestra, is no exception. The music is of varying contrasting styles, and easily changes from the more traditional melodic to the slightly diatonic and uneasily contrasting, then back again. Interesting (albeit strange to listen to without a little background) is the Piano Music with Orchestra for Piano Left Hand, Op. 29, composed in 1923 for a commission for a pianist that had lost his right arm in war time. I frequently felt that the pieces had a Shostakovich-like sarcastic quality mixed with gentle melodies and compositional technical experiments that would be of interest to the professional music student but not necessarily to the traditional music listener. That being said, this set will take me more than a few hearings to come to terms with how I really feel about it. Ms. Biret does her usual thorough good job performing difficult repertoire, and Toshiyuki Shimada does a fine job conducting the Yale Symphony Orchestra. However, the pieces themselves left this listener with a sense of emotional unease, as if something is painfully not finished although it has indeed ended which may, in fact, be the point in some cases. In any event, this is a well produced recording of these not often heard works and certainly belongs in the catalog of either the Hindemith fan or the contemporary music aficionado."Report Abuse
Hindemith and BiretDecember 4, 2013By Due Fuss See All My Reviews"I welcome any new Hindemith recording with open arms, especially one involving the eminent Idil Biret, who has made a career of performing and recording interesting repertoire along with her monumental recordings of the classic piano repertoire. Biret excels at Hindemith's stern angularity, while providing the expressiveness that is often forsaken in the quest for precision in this difficult music. There are too many works to discuss on this two CD set, but all are well played by the Yale Symphony Orchestra (undergraduates!) under the baton of Toshiyuki Shimada."Report Abuse