Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Why listen to Hindemith?
Philip Clark
Frank Peter Zimmermann and the Frankfurt RSO's album of the Violin Concerto and sonatas convince Philip Clark that Hindemith's works are worth a closer listen.
Label: BIS
Rating 4

Look Paul Hindemith up in the index of any 20th-century music guide, and there he is listed alongside the greats: parity with Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Cage and Varèse. We all know that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring broke the mould; that Schoenberg’s 12-note revolution set the atonal cat among the pigeons, that Cage’s music was silent but deadly. But what, exactly, did Hindemith do to deserve a seat at this top table?
Hindemith, you feel, wasn’t interested in being a ‘public’ composer in the way of Stravinsky or Shostakovich. Arriving stateside from his native Germany during the war, he sought refuge in academia (Yale) from where he refined his hunch that using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale equally while allying them to tonal anchors was a goer – an effective halfway house between Stravinsky and Schoenberg – and he became a motivating stylistic springboard for a generation of tonally-minded American composers: Copland, Bernstein, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, Roy Harris, et al.

This new survey of Hindemith’s Violin Sonatas and Violin Concerto shows that, as time hasn’t necessarily been generous to his reputation, he remains perpetually germane and current. True enough, his Violin Sonatas are inward looking – a composer runs tests to see how a fugue can operate without the customary tonal hooks, or how far he can push his free-association counterpoint. Mesmerising, expert how-to-do primers for musos everywhere. But his 1939 Violin Concerto is a work of a different order.
The concerto is volatile and nervy, unfolding events clearly shaking Hindemith out of his introverted mindset, but to peg this as only a ‘war’ concerto would be too easy. Unlike the emotionally neutral palette of the sonatas, the Concerto deals up extremes of contrast; a hesitant lyricism never quite allowed to make it or break it; a tense dialogue between sombre woodwind and the violin’s earnest optimism in the slow movement. Frank Peter Zimmermann persuades you that the Concerto is all heart and has been unfairly overlooked, while the sonatas appeal directly to the head.
Artists: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Enrico Pace (piano), Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
Philip Clark contributes to Gramophone and The Wire and is currently writing a book about Dave Brubeck.

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