Friday 9 August 2013

Terrific playing from Frank Peter Zimmermann and the Frankfurt RSO under Paavo Järvi in a new release of Hindemith’s works for violin from BIS

The German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was born at Hanau, near Frankfurt am Main. Whilst there is no shortage of recordings of his music, he still does not seem to enjoy the profile that he deserves. He studied the violin and composition with Adolf Rebner (1876-1967), Arnold Mendelssohn (1855-1933) son of a second cousin of Felix Mendelssohn; and Bernhard Sekles (1872-1934) at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main.  He earned his living at an early age playing the violin in cafes, dance bands and, at the age of only twenty, was appointed as the leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra.

After the end of the First World War, he returned to Frankfurt and founded the Amar-Hindemith Quartet in which he played the viola from 1922 to 1929. He began building a reputation when his String Quartet Op.16 was performed at the Donaueschingen Music Festival of which he was a committee member. In 1927, he was appointed as professor for composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin.

Early works included chamber music composed for the Amar-Hindemith Quartet; the song cycles Die junge Magd (The Young Maid) (1922), and Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary) (1924 rev. 1948)  and the opera Cardillac (1926). By the late 1920s Hindemith was regarded as the foremost German composer of his generation.

He sought to revitalize tonality—the traditional harmonic system that was being challenged by many other composers—and also pioneered in the writing of Gebrauchsmusik, or “utility music,” compositions for everyday occasions. An opponent of the 12-tone school of composer Arnold Schoenberg, Hindemith formulated the principles of a harmonic system that was based on an enlargement of traditional tonality.

Hindemith’s career as a composer reached a high point at the beginning of the 1930s, but with the seizure of power by the National Socialists, his works were declared as “culturally bolshevist” and disappeared from concert programmes.

Perhaps his greatest work was the opera Mathis der Maler, concerning the artist Matthias Grünewald and his struggles with society. The Nazi cultural authorities, led by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, banned the opera, denouncing the composer as a ‘cultural Bolshevist’ and ‘spiritual non-Aryan.’

During this time Hindemith travelled to Turkey where he taught at the conservatory in Ankara and to the USA but, in 1936, a final ban was issued for the performance of his works which led to Hindemith emigrating, initially to Switzerland but subsequently to the USA where he acquired American citizenship.  As a professor, he taught at Yale University from 1940 to 1953 and from 1951 to 1957, he was a professor of musicology at Zurich University, settling in Blonay near Lake Geneva.

Other notable works by Hindemith include his Kammermusik series for small, unconventional groups of instruments the Violin Concerto (1939), the Cello Concerto (1940), the Symphonic Metamorphoses After Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1946), and the opera Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World) (1957).

He died on 28 December 1963 in Frankfurt am Main.

BIS Records have just released a very attractive recording of Hindemith’s works for violin. With Frank Peter Zimmermann and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi performing the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1939). Frank Peter Zimmermann also plays the Sonata for solo Violin, Op. 31 No.2 (1924) and in the Sonata in E flat for Violin and Piano op.11 No.1, the Sonata in E for Violin and Piano (1935) and the Sonata in C for Violin and piano (1939) Zimmermann is joined by pianist Enrico Pace

BIS 2024
Quiet timpani open the Mäßig bewegte Halbe of the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra before the violin quickly joins with Frank Peter Zimmermann demonstrating an assured manner as he drives the music forward. In the slower second subject there is playing of great finesse. As the music picks up there are some terrific passages from Zimmermann, full of bravura with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt RSO on top form. What a lovely tone Zimmermann has as later in the movement he alternates with various woodwind instruments before leading to a brilliant coda.

The soulful Langsam unfolds beautifully in Zimmermann’s hands, with intricate little trills and delicate motifs before becoming increasingly intense. The music eventually returns to a quiet thoughtful nature with some lovely playing from Zimmermann who holds the extended line of the violin with a tense, slow, steady concentration.

Zimmermann and the orchestra bring a lighter feel to the Lebhaft, as though trying to cast off all gloomy thoughts.  This movement is positively skittish at times in its unstoppable forward momentum. The Frankfurt RSO is terrific in the livelier sections for orchestra. The violin returns in a more lyrical section, a lovely moment as the violin rises with the orchestra in a typically Hindemithian sound. The theme is picked over quietly by the violin with various woodwind instruments accompanying. The following cadenza is brilliantly done by Zimmermann, not just virtuosic, which it most certainly is, but thoughtful and delicate as well. The orchestra re-joins leading to a brilliant coda, a real presto, with terrific playing from Zimmermann and the Frankfurt RSO under Jarvi.

Hindemith’s little Sonata for Solo Violin, Op.31, No.2 has a lovely opening Leicht bewegte Viertel with the soloist sounding as though he is merely improvising a little tune. At one point I thought I could even hear Debussy in the music which ends with odd little pizzicato notes. The second movement Ruhig bewegte Achtel is more dramatic, full of harmonic angst with superb playing from Zimmermann, controlled yet virtuosic. The following Gemächliche Viertel is terrific, a fragile little movement played pizzicato throughout. The final Fünf Variationen über das Lied ‘Komm lieber Mai’ von Mozart. Leicht bewegt has a lilting theme from a song by Mozart that is subjected to a series of variations, very much like a study for violin with many virtuosic passages brilliantly played. There are some rhapsodic episodes before the music returns gently to the opening theme.

There is a bold opening from the piano in the Erster Teil. Frisch of the two movement Sonata in E flat for Violin and Piano, Op.11, No. 1 before the violin soon enters, with both performers frantically playing off each other. A longer melody soon follows but despite the lighter aspect of this movement there is occasionally a darker mood, certainly an instability well captured by Zimmermann and Enrico Pace. The opening theme returns at the end.

The second dance like movement Zweiter Teil. Im Zeitmaß eines langsamen, feierlichen Tanzes concentrates on this more sombre atmosphere, Enrico Pace often playing in the lower register to add to the gloom. Harmonically the music is very free. What a fine performance this is.

The Sonata in E for Violin and Piano has a lovely flowing melody in the Ruhig bewegt that rolls along, with the piano taking a fairly equal role. There are lovely resonant chords from Zimmermann and, at times, it is as though there is a conversation between the soloists. The second movement Langsam reveals a more passion melody, with Zimmermann displaying some fine textures. Part way through the music suddenly moves to a faster tempo, hurtling along, with Zimmermann and Pace a brilliant partnership. The music slows again towards the end before a decisive coda.

Hindemith’s Sonata in C for Violin and Piano (1939) that preceded his Violin Concerto by a few months, is one of his finest works. The lively Lebhaft opening moves ahead with great drive before the nostalgic flowing second movement Langsam – Lebhaft – Langsam, wie zuerst, which eventually gives way to the livelier Lebhaft section that really dances along. Zimmermann controls his dynamics so wonderfully and imperceptibly. The music finally returns to a slower tempo, beautifully controlled, where the faster theme blends with the slower theme to bring this movement to an end. The Fuge. Ruhig bewegt has a terrific fugal melody where both artists brilliantly weave around each other rising to a passionate central point before slowing and quietening again. The music eventually rises to a decisive, rousing coda to end this masterly sonata.

It is entrancing how much Hindemith is able to say in these relatively short sonatas. I still retain an affection for David Oistrakh’s 1962 recording of the Violin Concerto with the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky but with these fine performances recorded in such excellent sound this new release is a must for those who wish to get to know this still somewhat overlooked composer. 

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