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Hyperion Records

CDA68014 - Hindemith: Violin Sonatas
Trapeze Artists in Blue (1914) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: November 2012
Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: November 2013
Total duration: 56 minutes 59 seconds

'The finale of the D major sonata is a real treat, especially in Tanja Becker-Bender's superb account … the final C major is one of the jewels in Hindemith's sonata crown and draws superb playing from Becker-Bender and Nagy. Indeed, they are superb throughout' (Gramophone) » More

'The E flat Sonata opens with arresting gestures designed to let the performers show off, which Tanja Becker-Bender and Péter Nagy seize with relish. They give generally spacious readings of all four Sonatas … Hyperion’s team is rewarding in the large-scale challenges of the D major Sonata, and attuned to the sonatina-like scale of the E major work. A transcription of the Meditation from Hindemith’s ballet Nobilissima visione bears testimony to the composer’s pacifism' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'These new performances prove to be everything that one would wish for in these taxing and often elusive works … a valuable release' (International Record Review) » More

'Tanja Becker-Bender and Péter Nagy are well matched and give thoroughly forthright performances of real integrity, vitality and intelligence. The sound engineers have excelled themselves providing satisfyingly clear and well balanced sonics. For those looking for something away from the mainstream but accessible and of high quality this set of Hindemith violin sonatas fits the bill' (MusicWeb International)

'Overall these are insightful and communicative performances, flouting the notion that Hindemith’s music lacks emotion or energy. In fact, the opposite is altogether truer! These readings are complemented by an extremely informative booklet note from Malcolm MacDonald that helpfully places the music in a political context—which with Hindemith is doubly important' (

'Eine der schönsten Platten, die anlässlich des 50. Todestag von Hindemith den Weg in meinen CD-Player gefunden haben' (, Germany) » More

Violin Sonatas
Frisch  [4'08]
Lebhaft  [5'55]
Ruhig bewegt  [4'01]
Langsam  [6'10]
Lebhaft  [2'27]
Langsam  [4'11]

Hindemith’s Violin Sonatas fascinatingly mirror the various stages in the development of his musical language from the vocabulary of late Romanticism to the monumental, contrapuntal and revivified Baroque idiom of his maturity. They are performed here by virtuoso German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender who has made a speciality of the music of the early twentieth century.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Paul Hindemith was one of the most versatile instrumentalists of all composers—he used to claim that he could play every instrument of the orchestra. His 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 soloist. Nevertheless he continued to play and compose for the violin, notably in a series of sonatas, both with piano and unaccompanied, that fascinatingly mirror the various stages in the development of his musical language from the vocabulary of late Romanticism to the monumental, contrapuntal and revivified Baroque idiom of his maturity.

The Violin Sonata in E flat major, Op 11 No 1, is the first of a group of six stringed-instrument sonatas which Hindemith 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 J S Bach, providing a collection from which performers might choose. Collectively these sonatas are a fascinating crop of works that seem to chronicle the transition from the familiar sounds of late nineteenth-century Romantic music to something at once spicier and more objective.

The E flat major Sonata was included in the first-ever concert devoted entirely to Hindemith’s music, given in Frankfurt on 2 June 1919: a decisive event in his career, since it led to a contract with the Mainz-based publishing house of Schott, who would remain his principal publishers for the rest of his life. On that occasion Hindemith was the violinist, with his close friend Emma Lübbecke-Job at the piano. Hindemith originally thought of the work as a Sonatina; he sketched a third movement for it which he did not bother to complete, apparently feeling the two finished movements already created a satisfactory form.

The first movement is a lively affair, rhythmically driven in its outer sections, with a more lyrical central episode. Most of the material derives from the movement’s bold, fanfare-like opening—a pugnacious idea that is then contrasted with a gentler, extended theme that bespeaks the young Hindemith’s strong interest in the music of Debussy, whose work he had got to know well as it was an enthusiasm of his commanding officer on the Western Front. The movement’s harmonic language is often highly chromatic and tonally ambiguous—especially in the central episode, which wanders restlessly; the E flat tonic is emphasized at various points but is often cunningly obscured.

The second movement is a slow, solemn dance, grave and even a little ghostly in character, with an uncanny atmosphere that aligns it with the music of Ferruccio Busoni. The movement works towards a central climax, from which it unwinds towards the tonic E flat, eventually revealed in naked unison.

Immediately contemporary with the E flat major Sonata, but on a considerably larger scale, is the Violin Sonata in D major, Op 11 No 2, which was premiered on 10 April 1920 by the violinist Max Strub and the pianist Eduard Zuckmayer. Here we have a full three-movement layout, and the piece as a whole is perhaps more closely connected to the Romantic tradition and its late manifestations in the music of Max Reger and in Debussian Impressionism. The lively opening movement, which is mostly in D minor, has the strange, almost Schumannesque expressive marking ‘Mit starrem Trotz‘ (‘with stiff defiance’). The voluble, combative opening theme, first heard in trenchant unison on both instruments, is contrasted with a gentler, more elegant, and perhaps indeed Debussian second subject. The development allows a whiff of popular dance music before turning decidedly stormy, and the coda is still defiant and hard-bitten.

The slow movement is, by contrast, a calm and lyrical utterance, at least at the outset, though it turns more agitated and passionate as it proceeds, with expansive violin and piano writing redolent of Hindemith’s Romantic forebears. It is, however, a shapely and impressive movement, displaying the young Hindemith’s gift for expressive melody.

The finale, marked to be played ‘in the tempo and character of a fast dance’, is a cheerful, robustly tuneful affair which could be compared to the near-contemporary music for Much Ado About Nothing by Hindemith’s young rival Erich Wolfgang Korngold, especially when it lapses into a luscious contrasting subject. Here Hindemith evokes Baroque dance-forms in a wholly updated way, providing a jovial conclusion to a remarkably appealing work.

The Violin Sonata in E major dates from 1935 and was first performed in Geneva by Stefan Frankel and Maroussia Orloff on 18 February 1936. Much had happened in the intervening years. Hindemith had risen to the height of his fame as a contemporary composer. He had embraced a more objective, neoclassical aesthetic through the 1920s, only to return to a more warmly expressive vein at the beginning of the 1930s; and he had fallen foul of the new Nazi regime, which wished to regiment both style and content in the arts. In June 1934 the State had begun imposing an unofficial ban on radio broadcasts of his music. A campaign of vilification followed in the Fascist press. In the furore over Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, originally intended to be premiered in Berlin, the composer was personally attacked by Joseph Goebbels at Nazi Party rallies. He took leave of absence from his professorship at the Staatliche Musikhochschule to lie low and complete the opera; although he did not formally emigrate from Germany for another three years, he spent much of the time abroad. In 1936 the violinist Georg Kulenkampff dared to play the new Violin Sonata in Berlin: it was a great success, but this only intensified the Nazi campaign against Hindemith. After this his new works could only be played in foreign countries (Mathis, banned in Germany, was premiered in Zurich in 1938), while at home his works were featured in the notorious 1938 Exhibition of ‘Degenerate Music’ in Düsseldorf.

The Sonata in E major is very far from any sort of ‘degeneracy’: rather it seems a work of Apollonian clarity and balance of form. As with the Sonata Op 11 No 1, there are only two movements. The first of these is a peacefully flowing, sweetly lyrical invention with a beautifully sculpted main melody. This is a prime example of Hindemith’s mature style in which even the dissonances (here largely confined to the piano part) contribute to the clarity and direction of a tonality that combines the characteristics of the major and minor modes. The second movement opens with an eloquent slow theme that leads to a lively, scherzo-like episode full of dynamic optimism. At the climax the eloquent theme with which the movement opened is quoted, still within the faster tempo, and the quick music continues for a while before the slow section returns and flows into an impressive coda.

In its profound serenity (despite hints of tension) the Sonata in E major looks towards the style of Hindemith’s great 1937 ballet about St Francis of Assisi, Nobilissima visione. The Meditation for violin and piano (there is also a version for viola) of 1938 is a transcription of a peaceful tableau from Nobilissima visione, showing the Saint at prayer in appropriately exalted tones.

The last and in some ways the most masterly of Hindemith’s sonatas for violin and piano is the Violin Sonata in C major of 1939. Hindemith had severed his last ties as a German resident the previous year: crossing the 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 and began planning Die Harmonie der Welt, an opera (not destined to be completed 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 the recent Nobilissima visione. To some extent this must have been a response to the ever-worsening international situation. The Trumpet Sonata, for instance, ends with a wild and desolate funeral march subtitled ‘Music of Mourning’, culminating in the sombre chorale Alle Menschen müssen sterben (‘All men must die’). And the powerful C major Violin Sonata, among his finest compositions in this form, looks directly towards the two large-scale concertos, one each for violin and for cello, which he composed in 1939–40. Despite its high quality it waited nearly five years for its first performance, which took place in Lisbon on 5 May 1944, given by the violinist Silva Pereira and the pianist Santiago Kastner.

The Sonata in C major is cast in three movements, each one longer than the last. The terse and truculent first movement is a vigorous utterance which is developed almost entirely out of the decisive falling three-note figure with which it opens. The second movement—a little like the finale of the E major Sonata—is essentially a slow movement that encloses a central scherzo. Here the refined melodic writing of the slow outer sections has a gentle, contemplative quality, while the highly contrapuntal scherzo section has a rhythmic drive and courageous optimism that look towards the Violin Concerto Hindemith composed a few months later. When the slow opening melody returns, it is in the piano, while the violin capers onwards in moto perpetuo style, so that the pulses of slow movement and scherzo are combined. The finale is a majestic fugue, initially on a pensive subject introduced by the piano and then taken up by the violin. A livelier countersubject is then introduced by the violin; both subjects are developed in a masterly polyphonic texture to a triumphant close in which it is possible to feel the composer making a proud declaration of the ability of art to outlast its enemies.

Malcolm MacDonald © 2013

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'Hindemith: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67977)
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'Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis & other orchestral works' (CDA68006)
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'Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 1 – Viola Sonatas' (CDA67721)
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'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
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