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Hyperion Records

CDA67977 - Hindemith: Piano Sonatas
Red Elisabeth Riverbank, Berlin (1912) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen , Alte Pinakotek, Munich / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: November 2013
Total duration: 64 minutes 27 seconds

'Becker commands the structure of each work, and … is very impressive in the virtuosity of the Third. The new release also offers a set of Variations, discarded from the First Sonata: along with everything else here, this profoundly rewarding music—like Becker's playing itself—repays the deeper acquaintance of repeated listening' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Markus Becker draws out the First Sonata's exuberance and assertive power. The much shorter Second Sonata is also more immediately endearing, the Third confirming Hindemith’s stature as a supreme craftsman with a sure dramatic touch' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Markus Becker has clearly immersed himself in these pieces, instinctively knowing how and when to let Hindemith’s often-complex counterpoint breathe, and how to emphasise the attractive melodies. With excellent recorded sound and an enlightening booklet notes from Malcolm MacDonald, Hyperion has produced a noteworthy release with which to celebrate the music of Paul Hindemith' (

‘Bei Markus Becker … klingt Hindemiths Musik jedenfalls ganz und gar nicht hausbacken. Becker … weiß nur zu gut, wie man dieser Art von Musik zu Leibe rückt: mit Mut zum Risiko und ohne akademische Tüfteleien' (Piano, Germany)

Piano Sonatas
Lebhaft  [6'47]
Lebhaft  [7'10]
Mässig schnell  [3'01]
Lebhaft  [2'08]
Ruhig bewegt  [4'26]
Sehr lebhaft  [3'00]
Mässig schnell  [5'18]
Fuge: Lebhaft  [4'37]

It was in the second half of Hindemith’s career—after the composition of the opera Mathis der Maler (1933–5) and the campaign against it by the Nazis which eventually forced his emigration from Germany—that Hindemith produced his major utterances for solo piano. In his three piano sonatas, all written in 1936, Hindemith presents himself not as the rebel and revolutionary of the 1920s, but rather as an heir to the contrapuntal skill and keyboard dexterity of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Markus Becker has been acclaimed for his persuasive and authoritative recordings of German repertoire of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
A formidable executant on several instruments (he once claimed he could play every instrument in the orchestra, at least to some extent), Paul Hindemith was a highly capable pianist. Music for solo piano featured in his output from his earliest years. Indeed his first work to be publicly performed was a set of variations for piano played at the Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfurt, where he was a student, in 1913. It was also in his student years that he made the acquaintance of two young pianists—Emmy Ronnefeldt and Emma Lübbecke-Job—who became close friends and interpreters of all that he wrote for the instrument, whether as soloist or as accompaniment. By inclination and profession, though, Hindemith was a violinist and violist, and in the 1920s, when he was making a name for himself on the international stage, his most significant chamber and instrumental compositions were for strings—large-scale sonatas, trios, quartets and so on. His piano works of the same period, by contrast, tended to be more occasional pieces: short miniatures or collections of dances, like the jazz-influenced Suite ‘1922’. He had, it is true, composed an ambitious and experimental Piano Sonata in 1920—but his publishers turned this down and now only its barbaric stretto-finale survives complete.

It was in the second half of his career—after the composition of the opera Mathis der Maler (1933–5) and the campaign against it by the Nazis, which eventually forced his emigration from Germany—that Hindemith produced his major utterances for solo piano. He may have seen the instrument as the ideal medium for private meditation in troubled times, and the vehicle for a more philosophical probing into the nature of music itself. Both of these aspects may be sensed in the group of three piano sonatas which he composed in the single, fraught year of 1936. They are contemporary with his work on the textbook Unterweisung im Tonsatz, later published in English as The Craft of Musical Composition, in which he established the theoretical basis for his personal approach to tonality, counterpoint, formal structure, and indeed all aspects of compositional work. In a sense this task had been made more urgent by Nazi attacks on the ‘atonal noise’ and ‘incompetence’ of his music; the more galling for Hindemith because his mature idiom was by now consolidated and stabilized. The sonatas could be regarded as object lessons in that idiom. In them, Hindemith seems to have viewed the piano as providing a more or less neutral tone-colouring through which the movement and intertwining of tones, theme and lines could be contemplated without distraction (which does not mean they are without colour, light and shade, which any good player will want to bring out). Here, as in his near-contemporary organ sonatas, Hindemith presents himself not as the rebel and revolutionary of the 1920s, but rather as an heir to the contrapuntal skill and keyboard dexterity of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The previous year, 1935, he had completed an important group of Lieder on texts by the Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), begun while writing Mathis der Maler, and the inspiration he derived from Hölderlin carried over into the piano sonatas in an interesting way. Hölderlin, who spent some of his career in or near Hindemith’s home town of Frankfurt, became insane in 1806 and spent the last half of his tragic life confined in a tower on the city walls of Tübingen. (Hindemith himself, in Frankfurt, had made his home in another such tower, the so-called ‘Cowherds’ Tower’—‘Kuhhirtenturm’.) Though he was little known in his lifetime, German composers have turned to Hölderlin’s poetry time and again in periods of trouble and soul-searching, from Brahms (in his Schicksalslied) to the most avant-garde composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His Romantic extremism seems the antithesis of Hindemith’s balance and craftsmanship, though both men, in their own ways, were passionate classicists. Hölderlin is the supreme poet of regret for present limitation set against longing for a greater past; the poet of suffering mankind and heartless (or departed) gods. But his longing is never mere nostalgia: he was a passionate democrat, deeply influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution, who impatiently desired the overthrow of the old German princelings. The Classical world, so often evoked by his verse, stood for a vanished, harmonious cosmos but also as a source of new political hope, opened up by the Greek rebellion against the Turks in the late eighteenth century (the subject of his novel Hyperion). The Nazi propaganda machine attempted to portray Hölderlin as a patriotic German nationalist, but his democratic idealism gave the lie to this distortion. Thus Hindemith’s turning to Hölderlin in 1935 had a political as well as an aesthetic dimension.

Although Hindemith did not formally leave Germany until 1938, he spent as much time as possible outside the country in the mid-1930s in order to avoid political restrictions and to get on with his compositions in freedom. The first two piano sonatas were largely composed during an extended sojourn in Turkey, where at the invitation of the Turkish government Hindemith was organizing the national music school in Ankara. The Piano Sonata No 1 in A major (Hindemith’s harmonic language combined elements of both major and minor, although generally these works reach a resolution in the major key), the largest of the three sonatas, has an unusual form: five movements, the fourth recapitulating the material of the first, and none of them in a conventional sonata form. This design reflects its inspiration in Hölderlin’s poem Der Main. In this ardent lyric, the German poet speaks of his desire to see distant lands, especially Greece with the monuments of its ancient culture and the idyllic life of the Greek islands, where he is ‘lured by the labyrinthine dances with wine and drum and zither’. Then he redefines this desire: he is in actuality a ‘homeless singer’ and this imagined paradise cannot replace his homeland. From far abroad he will long, even more strongly, for the place where he was once happy, by the River Main.

This paean to the river that flows through Frankfurt clearly spoke to Hindemith as piercingly as it did to the melancholy Hölderlin, whose fleeting years of greatest happiness were spent there in his doomed love affair with Suzette Gontard. As mentioned, Hindemith composed his sonata even further from Germany than Greece: in Turkey, the ancient Asia Minor, where he could visit those ruins of Classical civilization (that Hölderlin, in fact, never saw) in the increasingly sure knowledge that a return to that city on the Main where his family still lived would soon no longer be possible.

The sonata bears closely on Hölderlin’s poem, not so much as a programmatic depiction as an instrumental correlative: the music appears abstract in expression, and the correspondences of feeling remain implicit. The short first movement, with its smoothly flowing crotchets, acts as a lyrical preface, mirroring the poet’s opening description of the act of travel over mountain and sea. It may even be a ‘song without words’, a purely instrumental setting or reading of the first two stanzas of Hölderlin’s poem. (Hindemith sometimes treated poetry in this way, for example in his early Lustige Sinfonietta after poems of Morgenstern, and in the much later Horn Concerto which incorporates a wordless setting of a poem of his own.) This comparatively miniature movement prepares for one on a larger scale: a slow and solemn march of pronounced elegiac character, one of the most impressive and inward-looking of Hindemith’s many inventions in march style. This corresponds to Hölderlin’s invocation of the ruined glories of Classical and Heroic Greece.

There follows an extended scherzo, reflecting the verses that deal with the idealized life of the Ionian Islands: it contrasts a strongly rhythmic, dance-like subject with a gentler, more song-like one, and this second idea becomes the basis of a central trio section. The fourth movement then harks back, in varied form, to the material of the first movement, just as Hölderlin at this point changes perspective and looks back, from the fantasy island that has become his place of exile, over the road travelled, to the place where he had initially set out. And accordingly Hindemith’s finale is a surging movement (Lebhaft, ‘lively’) of seemingly irrepressible motion, like the final section of the poem, which hymns the German river as it pursues its course to meet its ‘brother’, the Rhine, and finally to flow into the North Sea.

The other two piano sonatas of 1936, completed after Hindemith’s return to Germany from Turkey in June, have no such interfusion of poetic content—or if they do, he kept quiet about it. The Piano Sonata No 2 in G major is the shortest and lightest in tone of the three—Hindemith himself thought of it as a sonatina. Whereas the first sonata requires a player of considerable power and authority, No 2 is consciously laid out within the compass of amateurs, clear in form and texture and with many passages in two- or three-part counterpoint. Two short, concise movements—the first as clear as Clementi, with contrasting subjects but no development as such, and then a tiny wisp of a scherzo—preface a more serious-sounding third movement which begins with gravely melodious slow music. It soon turns out, however, that these soulful strains are merely the introduction to the cheerful rondo-finale, alternately strutting and ambling in motion. Eventually the movement slows again, and a brief epilogue ends the sonata on an unexpectedly sombre note.

The Piano Sonata No 3 in B flat major was composed immediately after the other two (from July to 20 August); it is on a larger scale than No 2, though structurally extremely taut, with nothing of No 1’s poetic expansiveness. Like No 1, though, it is an ambitious work, obviously written with a virtuoso performer in mind. Of Hindemith’s three sonatas No 3 approximates most closely to the classical sonata ideal—indeed to the Beethovenian four-movement archetype which had inspired generations of composers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—and its material is perhaps the most distinctive and resourcefully developed.

Yet again, however, Hindemith avoids a strenuous opening movement with competing themes in sonata style. The third sonata opens instead with a lyrical, calmly flowing movement of almost pastoral character—which incidentally looks forward towards the serenely exalted idiom of Nobilissima visione, the ballet on the life of St Francis of Assisi which he was to compose in 1937. There follows an energetic scherzo and trio, and then a movement in moderate tempo which, after a quietly tramping introduction, develops into a lithe, conversational fugato. This fugal writing foreshadows the finale, which crowns the sonata with a granitic and determined double fugue. The first subject is wiry and athletic; the second is derived by variation from the fugato subject in the previous movement. At the climax both themes are combined, and the sonata ends in a mood of hard-won triumph, the final bars a monumental confirmation of the home key. The pianist Walter Gieseking, who saw each sonata in manuscript as soon as it was written, considered this sonata the finest of the three.

When Sonata No 1 was first completed, it had a different second movement, entitled Variations (‘Variationen’). But Gieseking, who was scheduled to give the premiere in late 1936, requested that Hindemith should write something different, and the composer obliged with the slow march which now stands in its place. The variations remained unpublished until after Hindemith’s death. This too has a slow march subject (different from that in the replacement movement). The variations cover a wide gamut of expression, including a beautiful extended arioso variation characterized by the use of trills, but some of them are more dissonant and angular than the rest of the writing in the piano sonata, and the ending is stark and grim.

It may be that Gieseking felt that the uncompromising nature of this movement might run foul of the Nazi authorities. In the event it hardly mattered: irritated by the warm reception recently accorded to a new Hindemith violin sonata premiered in Geneva—and perhaps aware of the political dimension suggested by the use of Hölderlin’s poem with its theme of exile—those same authorities forbade the planned performance of the piano sonata. There were in fact to be no further public premieres for Hindemith in Germany until after World War II. Although his publishers rushed all three piano sonatas into print, it seems that, following the cancellation of Gieseking’s proposed premiere of No 1, the actual first public performances of the first two sonatas may have gone undocumented. However, No 3 was premiered in April 1937 in Washington DC, during Hindemith’s first concert tour of the USA, by the Puerto Rican virtuoso Jesús María Sanromá (for whom Hindemith would later write a sonata for piano duet and a piano concerto).

Malcolm MacDonald © 2013

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