Monday 18 November 2013

Naxos gathers together Hindemith’s ‘Piano Concertos’ in fine performances from Idil Biret and the Yale Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada

The 50th anniversary of the death of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) is bringing a number of new releases. Back in August (2013), I reviewed a very fine new release of works for violin from BIS.

Now from Naxos a new two CD release, entitled The Complete Piano Concertos, gathers together all Hindemith’s concerted works for piano and various instrumental combinations. Included are his Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps, Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings, Piano Music with Orchestra (Piano Left Hand), Chamber Music for Piano, Quartet and Brass and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

This new set features that fine pianist, Idil Biret, with the Yale Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada Born in Ankara, Idil Biret started to play the piano at the age of three and later studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Nadia Boulanger. She was a pupil of Alfred Cortot and a lifelong disciple of Wilhelm Kempff. She embarked on her career as a soloist at the age of sixteen appearing with major orchestras in the principal music centres of the world like Boston Symphony, Leningrad Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, London Symphony, Warsaw Philharmonic in collaboration with conductors of greatest distinction such as Erich Leinsdorf, Pierre Monteux, Hermann Scherchen, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Kazimierz Kord, Antoni Wit.

Idil Biret has received the Lili Boulanger memorial Award in Boston, the Harriet Cohen / Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal in London, the Polish Cavalry Cross, the Adelaide Ristori Prize in Italy, the French Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite and the State Artist distinction in Turkey. Her Boulez recording received the Golden Diapason of the year award in France in 1995 and the complete Chopin recordings have received a Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin award in Poland the same year. In 2007 the President Lech Kaczsnky decorated Biret with the highest order of Poland, Cross of the Order of Merit (Krzyzem Kawalerskim Ordera Zaslugi) for her contribution to Polish culture through her recordings and performances of Chopin’s music.

Hindemith’s Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps, Op.49 (1930) was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and premiered by Emma Lubbecke-Job with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in October 1930. In four movements, the first, Ruhig gehende Viertel, opens on the low brass in a melancholy melody before the piano enters in a somewhat dissonant theme. Soon the piano dominates, with occasional solo passages as it picks its way forward, as though merely playing a counterpoint to the main melody that always returns in the brass. The piano’s theme occasionally becomes quite dissonantly insistent. Lebhaft opens with the piano in a lively fugal theme, rising in rhythmic intensity to a toccata like passage before the brass enter in playful dialogue with the piano. Idil Biret and the brass of the Yale Symphony Orchestra are terrific in this intricate music. When a brass fanfare arrives it leads to the coda.

The piano opens the Sehr ruhig: Variationen in a limpid melody with harp accompaniment making an unusual combination. The harps play a little phrase responded to by the piano as the dialogue between the two continues. The movement continues in this oddly atmospheric manner with Olivia Coates, Chelsea Lane and Idil Biret providing some really sensitive playing, the piano blending its brittle, tinkling notes beautifully with the harps. The finale Mäßig schnell, kraftvoll has the brass open with an optimistic theme before the piano enters to take up a variation of the theme. A great forward momentum is provided by the piano before the harps join to add to the texture. As the music builds it becomes increasingly contrapuntal until quietening with a languid feel as the piano and brass slowly move forward. The harps return to accompany the piano to lead to a quiet coda with a chordal brass conclusion.

Predominantly a twelve tone composition, I found this a remarkably enjoyable work.

Better known is Hindemith’s Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings (1940), a work that takes as its basis the early medical theory of the four humours. In five sections, the theme and four variations, the orchestra opens Thema: Moderato – Allegro assai – Moderato by presenting the theme, a swaying melody, before the piano enters in the Allegro assai, a rather spiky rhythmic version of the theme, reminiscent of Bartok, very percussive. A solo violin signals the arrival of the Moderato third section, a Siciliano. Soon the piano enters, again playing a brittle, rhythmic motif. Eventually the orchestra takes over in a flowing melody with an underlying rhythmic pulse.

The piano tentatively opens Variation I: Melancholisch: Langsam – Presto – Langsamer Marsch., before a muted violin joins slowly and agonisingly pulling the music forward in this the Melancholic variation, so chamber like. Muted strings arrive to press the music forward in the Presto section that, when the piano re-joins, becomes an oddly flowing march – perhaps a funeral march. Variation II: Sanguinisch: Walzer opens with the piano and orchestra playing a lilting, rhythmic waltz tempo, the Sanguine variation that varies in tempo and rhythm with a faster central section. At times the piano adds a playful touch against the flowing orchestral part before speeding to an end.

The strings open Variation III: Phlegmatisch: Moderato – Allegretto – Allegretto scherzando, the Phlegmatic variation, before the piano enters in a rather rhythmically plodding motif which tries to open out though the strings seem to hold it back. Halfway through a jogging pace arrives gently moving along before the quietly end. Variation IV: Cholerisch: Vivace – Appassionato – Maestoso opens with rapid strings and a virtuosic piano motif in this, the Choleric variation. The music quietens to a gentler piano motif before rising again, a passage for pizzicato strings leading to a sudden pause. A broader orchestral passage opens, soon joined by the piano, with Biret playing massive chords and scales that leads to a passage where both piano and orchestra move inexorably forward to the end.

There is some simply stunning playing here from Idil Biret, a pianist that never fails to impress.

The second disc in this set opens with the Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), Op.29 (1923) another of the works that many composers wrote for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the First World War. It was also another work that the pianist didn’t like and was never performed by him. It seems that the work languished until after his death, when found amongst his papers by his wife.

In four movements, played without a break, piano and orchestra open the Einleitung: Maßige schnelle Halbe with a lively and rather riotously dissonant theme, particularly when the brass joins. The piano part again has much of Bartok’s percussiveness. One can understand Hindemith’s title given that the piano part, though with a certain dominance, is very much combined within the structure of the overall writing. Plodding pizzicato basses open Sehr lebhafte Halbe with an oboe melody, before the piano enters working around the theme in this rather melancholy music.

In the third movement, Trio: Basso ostinato: Langsam(e) Vierte, as the music develops it becomes a little more anxious and complex. A flute joins later to lead the music into a slower plodding section with the pizzicato basses returning. Percussion and bold orchestral sounds open the Finale: Bewegte Halbe before the piano joins in this fast flowing music with quite an intricate piano part so well played by Idil Biret. Percussion then flute join in the merriment as the pace of the music increases with Shostakovichian woodwind sounds. There is a wild contribution from the solo violin playing a rising and falling motif as the music becomes percussive and dramatic, leading up to the coda with bold piano chords before a sudden end.

What Idil Biret does so well is to hold the overall musical form together regardless of its often fragmented nature. There is some terrific playing from Biret in the taxing left hand writing and some very fine playing from the Yale Symphony Orchestra.

Chamber Music No.2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass, Op.36, No.1 (1924) was written for the conductor, Hermann Scherchen but first performed by the Frankfurter Museumsgesellschaft under Clemens Krauss in October 1924. In four movements, a fast piano theme opens Sehr lebhafte Achtel , over a held string note before all the instruments join.  There is more terrific playing from Idil Biret, capturing, again, Hindemith’s percussive piano writing in the wonderfully forward moving piano part.

The second movement, Sehr langsame Achtel, brings a quieter, more melodic instrumental opening, full of tragic feeling. When the piano enters it is in a motif that acts as a kind of counterpoint to the broader, flowing instrumental flow, so effective, particularly as played by Idil Biret who manages to bring so much drama and passion to this endlessly flowing and subtly developing movement often pared down to chamber proportions. A sudden instrumental outburst leads to a more vigorous section and a passage for solo piano before the instruments return for the coda.

The brief, lighthearted, sometimes raucous Kleines Potpourri has some of the feel of Stravinsky and the lively but brief Finale has a terrific rhythmic bounce and some first rate playing from Biret who has such a fine touch, sense of overall form and dynamics. The brass become dominant as the music progresses and rises, with the piano part seemingly unstoppable, so full of momentum as Idil Biret pushes the music forward intoxicatingly before a brisk instrumental coda.

The first concerto proper arrives in the form of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945) written towards the end of the Second World War for the Puerto Rican pianist, Jesús Maria Sanromá who premiered the work with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.

The first movement, Maßig schnell, has an orchestral opening with a lovely woodwind contribution in a typically free flowing Hindemithian melody. The piano enters with the woodwind still prominent in this ever developing movement. Textural interest is added by the brass phrases that appear. The music rises to a climax with brass and woodwind and timpani before the cadenza. Biret really has the measure of Hindemith’s sound world, handling all of the often fragmented sounding phrases so naturally.  The extraordinarily virtuoso passages are easily accomplished. A lovely light dancing section for flute, piano and orchestra appears as Hindemith weaves a lovely tapestry of instrumental sounds through his score.

Hovering strings and quiet percussion sounds and woodwind patterns open the haunting Langsam. When the piano enters it has the woodwind hovering around it, making little patterns and motifs. The music then starts to rise and develop, with a richer orchestral accompaniment as the piano weaves its way forward building to some terrifically massive chords from Biret. The final movement Medley ‘Tre Fontane’ initially sounds dark but as soon as the piano enters, the mood is lightened. As the piano develops the theme it is, nevertheless, thoughtful in nature. As the music works its way through the various sections of this movement, marked Canzona, March, Valse lente, Caprice and Tre Fontane, the music is at turns fast and furious with woodwind, brass and percussion, sad flowing with a solo piano section, rhythmic, bouncing and lively, fast and dancing with an archaic flavour before a frantic, wild coda.

It is good to have these works gathered in one collection especially as played by Idil Biret and the fine Yale Symphony Orchestra under Toshiyuki Shimada.  They receive a clear recording though, occasionally, the piano can sound a little hollow. There are informative booklet notes.

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