Thursday 2 January 2014

An excellent way to get to know Hindemith’s unusual but very enjoyable works for viola d’amore on a new release from Hänssler Classic

The Viola d'amore appeared around the end of the 17th century and is believed to have evolved from instruments coming from the Middle East, Turkey and India, where instruments with additional resonating strings were common. The majority of violas d'amore have fourteen strings, seven playing strings and seven additional resonating or sympathetic strings.

However, there are instruments that exist with different combinations of playing strings (four, five, six, and seven) and sympathetic strings (from four up to fourteen).  In Germany, violas d'amore without sympathetic strings existed for a short time during the early 18th century.

The first time I heard the viola d’amore was years ago at a recital of works by Vivaldi in Chichester cathedral when I was quite taken by the amazingly resonant sound produced.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) seems to have become interested in the viola d’amore around 1922 when he wrote to a friend of his interest in the instrument. An accomplished viola player, Hindemith went on to found a trio consisting of viola de gamba, harpsichord and viola d’amore which he played himself. His investigations of early music lead to his own basso continuo realisations of works that included Biber and Stamitz. After borrowing a viola d’amore he eventually had one made that, instead of the usual head of an angel or cupid on the scroll, incorporated the head of his wife Gertrud instead.

Hänssler Classics have recently released a recording of Hindemith’s works for viola d’amore played by Gunter Teuffel (viola d’amore) . This new recording includes not only Hindemith’s basso continuo realisations of works that included Biber and Stamitz but also two of his own original works for the instrument. 

CD 93.309

Gunter Teuffel is joined by Annette Schäfer (viola d’amore), Jorg Halubek (harpsichord and Christian Zincke (viola de gamba) for Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s (1644-1704) Partita für zwei Violen d’amore und bass continuo where immediately the amazing sonorities of the viola d’amore are highlighted. Biber was so advanced in the type of sounds he expected to be produced and Hindemith’s arrangement just adds to the thrilling sounds.

The harpsichord used here is interesting in that it dates from Hindemith’s time and has pedals and damper registers. It was found languishing in an SWR radio studio in Stuttgart. Period specialists may take issue with Hindemith’s realisation but, in its own way, this is now a period piece. Gunter Teuffel is alive to every nuance and texture from the wonderful Präludium with its deep gritty textures, through a gently dancing section, some lovely flowing harpsichord sounds, through a terrific lively Gigue to the flowing Arietta variata. The three instruments, particularly the viola d’amore and viola da gamba produce such a wide range of textures, quite a big sound. Towards the end of the Arietta there are some quite amazing sounds from the harpsichord.

With the Sonate in D-Dur für Viola d’amore und bass continuo by Carl Stamitz (1745-1801) Gunter Teuffel changes from an anonymous 18th century instrument to Hindemith’s own viola d’amore which he plays for the rest of the works on this disc.

After a stately opening Adagio, the music really takes off in the Allegro, with the viola d’amore weaving lovely sounds around the viola da gamba of Christian Zincke. When Gunter Teuffel presses down on his bow, he really bites into the musical texture. There is a sultry second Adagio and a concluding Menuetto with Jörg Halubek’s harpsichord providing some wonderful sounds with a bell like clarity.

These may be historical novelties, not in keeping with modern performance practice, but they are great fun to listen to.

Hindemith’s – Kleine Sonate für viola d’amore und klavier, Op. 25 No 2 formed part of his Op.25 set which included a Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1 (1922) and a Solo Sonata for Cello, Op. 25, No. 3 (1923). In three movements, the first, Mäßig schnell. Lustig, opens with the piano before the viola d’amore enters playing some lovely string dissonances. It has something of the folk element of Bartok with superb playing from Teuffel and Anthony Spiri (piano). The Sehr langsam also opens with the piano before viola d’amore enters in a lovely melody and sounding more conventionally like a viola. As the movement works its way forward, more complex harmonies are drawn from the viola d’amore with some tremendously beautiful string harmonies before the music falls to the viola d’amore’s rich lower register as it heads to an end. Sehr lebhaft has a lively opening for viola d’amore and piano in a fast moving finale that grows in tension before hurtling to the coda.

In 1927 Hindemith started work on his viola d’amore concerto, Kammermusik No. 6 fur viola d’amore und kleines Kammerorchester, Op 46 No. 1 a composition intended for himself to play. The Kammerorchester consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn, trombone, three cellos, and two double basses. It is in one movement but is in four sections with an instrumental opening to Mäßig schnell. Majestätisch before the viola d’amore immediately enters, playing quite dissonantly against the ensemble. The dissonance mellows a little, in this forward moving movement, as the theme is passed around the ensemble. In the second section, Langsam, the ensemble opens in a sad melody principally on the clarinet. Eventually the viola d’amore joins, adding an astringency to the melody with some fine playing from Teuffel in this often luminous, flowing movement. A mournful horn enters, following the viola d’amore line. The music is often freely rhapsodic in the way the melody is developed.

A solo passage for the viola d’amore opens the Variationen. Sehr langsam, frei im Zeitmaß section, with more superb playing. The ensemble enters with individual instruments picking out the theme until it broadens out in this rather whimsical movement. The final Lebhaft, wie früher picks up apace as a finale dances to the coda.

It is obvious from these works how much Hindemith, a gifted violist, immersed himself in the viola d’amore. Gunter Teuffel and his colleagues give extremely fine performances which, with a first rate recording from the SWR Funkstudio, Frankfurt makes this an excellent way to get to know these unusual but very enjoyable works. The CD booklet has excellent notes as well as pictures of Hindemith’s viola d’amore.

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