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Hyperion Records

CDA67721 - Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 1 – Viola Sonatas
Girls sitting by the water (c1920) by Otto Mueller (1874-1930)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: April 2008
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2009
Total duration: 57 minutes 29 seconds


'Not since the days of William Primrose have I heard Hindemith's viola music played with such warmth and conviction' (Gramophone)

'Some of Hindemith's most haunting tunes went into his viola music … this is the first volume of a projected and very welcome series devoted to the viola works of a composer who played the instrument himself and wrote prolifically for it … [Sonata No 4] gives Power a chance to show off the gorgeously smooth tone of his 400-year-old instrument … Power's acute sense of phrasing makes for an eloquent and elegiac 'Meditation'' (BBC Music Magazine)

'All the performances are superb, with Lawrence Power lavishing all the richness of his velvety tone and generous phrasing on some of the most striking melodic ideas that Hindemith ever produced' (The Guardian)

'Both players have the measure of this music, both technically and musically. They offer more verve and variety of both tone and musical approach than Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin for ECM … all in all, these are excellent, well-recorded performances of these fine works, brooding and turbulent in the best traditions of the early twentieth century' (International Record Review)

'Power plays with his piercing intelligence of tone; Crawford-Phillips' pianism is quick with life' (The Sunday Times)

'Power and Crawford-Phillips discover more in the music than has been revealed to us in the past … vital performances' (Fanfare, USA)

The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 1 – Viola Sonatas
Sehr lebhaft  [4'24]
Fantasie: Ruhig  [2'55]

Lawrence Power, Britain’s acknowledged greatest living performer on the viola, turns his attention to an incalculably important body of work for the instrument: a complete survey of Hindemith’s music for viola. Hindemith himself was an internationally renowned violist and gave the premiere of Walton’s Viola Concerto, writing more solo repertoire for the viola than for any other instrument. Hindemith is a genuinely undervalued composer, with a popular impression of his music as uncompromisingly gritty which will be proved by this series to be entirely undeserved.

The Viola Sonata in F major Op 11 No 4 is a graceful and charming work that may surprise those who are only aware of Hindemith’s place in the European avant-garde. The stunningly melodic opening of the first movement and the lullaby-like tune which features in the Finale comprise some of the most romantic music the composer ever wrote. The Sonata Op 25 No 4, written only three years later, shows the development of Hindemith’s style in the intervening period: an altogether tauter construction, in the leaner, rhythmically highly directed idiom that had rapidly evolved in those years. The piano plays an unusually prominent role. The Meditation for viola and piano of 1938 is a transcription of a peaceful movement from his ballet of the same year about St Francis of Assisi, Nobilissima visiona, depicting the saint at prayer: it will be familiar to concert-goers as the opening portion of the orchestral suite that Hindemith also fashioned from the ballet. The music is a kind of distillation of his mature idiom, gravely flowing and serene.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Paul Hindemith’s first instrument was the violin, and so thoroughly did he master it that he rose to become leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra at the age of nineteen. But by the end of World War I he had turned in preference to the viola, and in the inter-war period he was internationally renowned both as a chamber-music player—he was the violist of the Amar Quartet, which specialized in contemporary music—and as a concert soloist. (He gave the premiere of William Walton’s Viola Concerto, for example.) He probably wrote more solo repertoire for the viola than for any other instrument. In addition to a concerto (Der Schwanendreher), two other concerto-like works (the fifth Kammermusik and the second Konzertmusik), and the Trauermusik for viola and strings, he wrote no fewer than seven sonatas, either for viola and piano or viola unaccompanied. The first examples of these latter categories are the fourth and fifth, respectively, of the five stringed-instrument sonatas which he began in 1918 while still serving in the German army on the Western Front and published together as his Opus 11.

At that time it was an almost unheard-of gesture to group together so many works as subdivisions of a single opus, and it indicated Hindemith’s desire to put away Romantic attitudes, such as the idea that every composition was a complete and utterly separate work of art. Admittedly Brahms and Reger had sometimes published chamber works in pairs, but by encompassing such a large number of fair-sized works Hindemith was going back to the examples of Haydn or even Handel, providing a collection from which performers might choose. On 2 June 1919, partnered by his pianist friend Emma Lübbecke-Job, he premiered the Sonata in F major Op 11 No 4 for viola and piano as part of an all-Hindemith concert in his home town of Frankfurt. The concert led directly to the work’s publication, and a connection with the publishing firm of Schott that lasted the rest of Hindemith’s life.

Though not without original touches, this graceful and amiable sonata is one of few works which hints at the source of Hindemith’s style in the sound-world of Brahms and even Dvorák. There is also a Franco-Russian strain, perhaps heightened by a study of Debussy (whom his wartime commanding officer had especially admired). Little in the sonata’s musical language would have caused surprise in the 1890s, though few pieces of that era modulate so freely. The rather unusual form, with a short introductory movement, a theme and variations, and a finale that interrupts the variation-sequence only to resume it later, suggests the genre of fantasy-sonata cultivated by some of the Romantic composers.

The first movement’s lulling initial melody might almost be by Brahms, though the chromatic harmonization of its counter-statement points to César Franck. A cadenza-like passage leads into the variation movement, whose folk-song-flavoured theme is rather redolent of the Russian nationalist school (Borodin, say, filtered through Debussy). The ensuing four variations are more individual, however, with the part-writing turning increasingly into real polyphony.

The finale disrupts the process: it resembles a self-contained sonata-form movement with two contrasting ideas—the first assertive, with a prominent three-note rhythmic figure, and the second a gentle, lullaby-like tune, one of the most frankly Romantic melodies in Hindemith’s entire output. After an extended development, however, the sequence of variations begun in the previous movement resumes with a final group of three: one gently flowing, a livelier fugato, and a coda where the folk-song-like theme has the last word.

Only three years separate Op 11 No 4 from Hindemith’s next viola sonata with piano, the fourth member of his Op 25 set (it still was his practice at this period to group several string sonatas together in a single opus). Yet while the Sonata Op 25 No 4 for viola and piano, composed in 1922, is technically still an ‘early’ work, every bar, at least of the first two movements, is echt Hindemith. In the meantime he had leapt to prominence in the European avant-garde with a scandalous trilogy of short operas dealing with eroticism from different perspectives, and had then almost immediately renounced their sensationalist style for a new ‘objectivity’ owing much to the Baroque composers. Unlike the F major Sonata’s virtual continuum of development from one movement to the next, therefore, the new sonata’s movements are highly contrasted and defined: this is an altogether tauter construction, in the leaner, rhythmically highly directed idiom that had rapidly evolved in the intervening years. The piano plays an unusually prominent role, opening the first movement with an extended solo of its own before the viola joins it for a driven Allegro with a gentler, but hardly much more peaceful, second subject.

The evaporation of this energy into the sudden understatement of the coda is all the more unexpected—as is the eloquence of the slow movement, a kind of impassioned monologue for the viola against tolling piano chords: sometimes bell-like, sometimes like a chorale. The finale bursts in with brusquely percussive gestures in both instruments, developing into a determined and exhilarating moto perpetuo. This is imbued apparently (and for Hindemith unusually) with extended references to Eastern European music. One feels his contact at contemporary music festivals with the brilliant chamber works of Kodály and Bartók had temporarily rubbed off on him. Perhaps he realized this, for the movement is virtually unique in his output; it may be why he allowed this—in every other respect magnificent—sonata, alone of the Op 25 group, to languish unpublished during his lifetime after he gave the first performance in January 1923.

Hindemith did not return to the viola/piano genre for seventeen years—with the two minor exceptions of the piano version of his Trauermusik (1936) in memory of King George V, and the Meditation for viola and piano of 1938. This latter piece is a transcription of a peaceful movement from his ballet of the same year about St Francis of Assisi, Nobilissima visione, depicting the saint at prayer: it will be familiar to concert-goers as the opening portion of the orchestral suite that Hindemith also fashioned from the ballet. The music is a kind of distillation of his mature idiom, gravely flowing and serene, the harmony fusing major and minor into a richly elegiac sonority.

By the time he composed Nobilissima visione Hindemith had fallen foul of the Nazi regime, which banned performance of his works and posed a danger to his immediate family. Since 1933 he had been spending increasing amounts of time outside Germany, teaching and performing. He severed his last ties as a German citizen immediately after the premiere of Nobilissima visione, which took place in London. Crossing the German border into Switzerland (not without hindrance from the Nazi customs authorities), he settled there from September 1938 until February 1940, when he emigrated to the USA. If ‘settled’ is the right word—financial pressures dictated several concert tours, to Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and the USA.

Nevertheless, this was an immensely productive period. As well as working on a projected Breughel ballet which became the piano-concerto-like Four Temperaments, he orchestrated some of his Marienleben songs of 1922–3 and began planning Die Harmonie der Welt, an opera (destined to remain uncompleted for nearly twenty years) on the life of the astronomer Kepler during the Thirty Years’ War. Meanwhile he produced a veritable stream of instrumental sonatas: one each for horn, trumpet, harp, violin, viola and clarinet, continuing a series originally begun in 1937 with sonatas for organ, piano duet, oboe and bassoon. He seems to have been reassessing the expressive potential of the various solo instruments; and indeed several of these sonatas possess a tension and drama very different from the harmonious serenity of Nobilissima visione. So it was during his third concert tour of the USA, in the early months of 1939, that Hindemith composed his third and largest Viola Sonata (which was also his last composition for the instrument as a soloist).

This four-movement Sonata for viola and piano, which he premiered at Harvard on 18 April 1939, has unexpected affinities—from the standpoint of Hindemith’s most mature idiom—with the early F major Sonata, insofar as it possesses a ‘Phantasie’ movement, the finale includes two variations, and the work itself is more or less centred on F, though neither major not minor but a continual blend of the two. (In fact the work has no declared key-signature, and as a result has sometimes been incorrectly designated as a ‘Sonata in C’.) On the other hand it speaks entirely with the voice of the mature Hindemith, in strong, confident and sustained polyphonic lines. The determined and ardent first movement has an overall sonata shape, with a more tranquil subsidiary theme; working to an impressive climax, it displays the increased emotional warmth typical of Hindemith’s works of the late 1930s, a quality which indeed informs the whole sonata. There follows a powerful Scherzo, playing with rapidly changing lengths of bar, and with an emphatic rhythmic tag which Hindemith develops with great resource and sardonic wit while the piano contributes fanfare-like figures and perpetuum mobile accompaniments, or sinisterly stalks the viola in staccato.

The ‘Phantasie’ slow movement proves to be a rhapsodic and increasingly dramatic blend of recitative and arioso, the viola now well to the fore. The finale begins affably enough, and its second subject emerges as a miniature march. But instead of a conventional development these materials are treated in two highly contrasted variations, the first mysterious and capricious, the piano contributing bird-like warbles and runs, the second more decisive and vigorous, sweeping the sonata to a triumphant conclusion on a unison F.

Malcolm MacDonald © 2009

Other albums in this series
'Hindemith: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67977)
Hindemith: Piano Sonatas
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67977  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis & other orchestral works' (CDA68006)
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis & other orchestral works
Buy by post £10.50 CDA68006  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Hindemith: Violin Sonatas' (CDA68014)
Hindemith: Violin Sonatas
Buy by post £10.50 CDA68014  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 2 – Sonatas for solo viola' (CDA67769)
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'Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 3 – Music for viola and orchestra' (CDA67774)
Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 3 – Music for viola and orchestra
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67774 
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