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Hyperion Records

CDA68006 - Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis & other orchestral works
Mountains in Winter (1919) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: December 2012
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Michael George
Engineered by Mike Clements
Release date: December 2013
Total duration: 65 minutes 58 seconds


'The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra audibly relish the challenges of each work and turn in immaculate performances of each, caught in superb sound by Mike Clements' (Gramophone)

'This fine album from Martyn Brabbins and the BBC SSO … illustrates in the Symphonic Metamorphosis and the Konzertmusik for brass and strings that Hindemith could be both warmly entertaining and bracingly intellectual at the same time' (The Observer)

'This fine orchestral programme … Brabbins and co relish the contrast between abrasive, declaratory brass and singing, soaring strings in the Konzertmusik … the Mathis is entirely worthy of this oft-recorded masterpiece, but the Weber Metamorphosis is the highlight, one of Hindemith's most attractive works, delivered with rhythmic bite and colouristic flair' (The Sunday Times)

'Hindemith's three orchestral scores in ideally gutsy persuasive accounts from Brabbins and his crack team. When a disc like this is presented with such panache, warmly detailed sound and persuasive sleevenotes, there really is no reason not to buy or download' (Classical Music)

'The Konzertmusik for brass and strings is fabulous—neatly constructed and beautifully written, as you'd expect from a composer who could play every orchestral instrument with some competence. Wise listeners will be drawn to experience its pleasures again and again, marvelling at the clever details, like the strings' opening chorale reprised on massed horns at the close of the first part, or the jaunty tuba line accompanying the second movement's subsidiary theme. The rush of adrenalin in the closing minutes is so uplifting, so positive … Martyn Brabbins's hardworking BBC Scottish players cope brilliantly with Hindemith's demands, also turning in a neat, poised reading of the three-movement symphony the composer drew from the opera Mathis der Maler. Hindemith's busy counterpoint seldom sounds dry, and Brabbins glories in the little moments of rapture—the first movement's sonorous coda, and the ecstatic brass Alleluias which close the piece. There's also the crowd-pleasing Symphonic Metamorphosis, gleefully transmuting Weber's small-scale piano duet themes into a unexpectedly entertaining showpiece. Bernstein's Israel Philharmonic recording remains the brassiest and punchiest, but Brabbins's performance has loads to commend it—fabulous percussion in the Turandot scherzo, and an elegant solo flute in the Andantino. A wonderful album, and the perfect introduction to a still under-appreciated composer' (

Symphonic Metamorphosis & other orchestral works
Engelkonzert  [9'06]
Grablegung  [4'11]
Allegro  [4'17]
Andantino  [4'19]
Marsch  [4'49]

‘This is ideal repertoire for the BBCSSO, with its beefy lower strings, its bright, biting brass and searing violins’ (The Guardian)

This album contains Hindemith’s most popular orchestral works, including the Balanchine-choreographed Symphonic Metamorphosis, performed with lapidary precision and great empathy by Hyperion regulars the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins, who have proved themselves consummate interpreters of this composer. Countermanding his reputation a composer of grim, gritty music, this is Hindemith at his most genuinely enjoyable—as Gavin Plumley writes in his informative booklet notes: ‘Hindemith’s music is both intelligible and intellectual, as entertaining as it is finely wrought’.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
"I am firmly convinced that a big battle over new music will start in the next few years—the signs are already there. The need will be to prove whether or not the music of our day, including my own, is capable of survival. I of course believe firmly in it, but I also believe that the reproaches made against most modern music are only too well deserved. Enemies of the new music will use all possible means to attack it."

Read in hindsight, Paul Hindemith’s 1925 letter to his publishers is eerily prescient of the censure he and many of his contemporaries faced during the Nazi era. Yet the politicization of the arts was also manifest in those inter-war years and Hindemith was particularly vocal about the role that music had to play within society. That awareness only sharpened in 1933, when Germany’s cultural life changed irrevocably and Hindemith, the ‘objective’ composer, was himself objectified.

Hindemith’s music during the 1920s offered a determined break from post-Romanticism. Born in Hanau in 1895 and encouraged in musical pursuits by his passionately musical father, he had embraced the Romantic style wholeheartedly. His pre-war works flaunt affinities with the old guard of Brahms, Dvorák and Tchaikovsky, as well as more recent talents such as Mahler, and Richard Strauss, and also Franz Schreker, whose operas he played as the leader of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra. Forced to put down his violin, Hindemith was called up at the end of 1917, playing bass drum in a regimental band before serving in the trenches.

To provide a break from the fighting, Hindemith formed a string quartet with fellow soldiers, and he was playing Debussy’s 1893 Quartet as the radio announced the death of the French composer: ‘We did not play to the end. It was as if our playing had been robbed of the breath of life. But we realized for the first time that music is more than style, technique and the expression of powerful feelings. Music reached out beyond political boundaries, national hatred and the horrors of war. On no other occasion have I seen so clearly what direction music must take.’

In the years that followed Hindemith embraced the even more astringent discourse of Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), an artistic movement that moved away from the overtly emotional language of Romanticism and Expressionism, with its increasing distance from bourgeois norms and musical lavishness. This is illustrated by his instructions to the performer in his Suite ‘1922’ for piano: ‘Disregard what you learnt in your piano lessons. Don’t spend too much time considering whether to strike D sharp with the fourth or the sixth finger. Play this piece in a very wild manner, but always keep it very strict rhythmically, like a machine. Look on the piano here as an interesting kind of percussion instrument and treat accordingly.’ As with Hindemith’s thoughts on Debussy’s String Quartet, this instruction is somewhat ambiguous. It objectifies the piano, yet focuses on the role of the individual. Clearly Hindemith did not see things in black and white. He is the master of Gebrauchsmusik (‘music for use’), yet loathed its Marxist tones, hardly surprisingly for a man who admired music that ‘reached out beyond political boundaries’. Indeed his refusal to embrace the leftist views of Weill and Brecht proved gradually more confrontational. And he was equally sure about side­stepping musical extremes, not least the Second Viennese School’s serialism and the quarter-tone fascinations of Alois Hába, whose work he nonetheless performed.

Hindemith brought great sophistication to the music of Neue Sachlichkeit, as Hanns Gutman commented in 1929, shortly before Hindemith wrote his Konzertmusik for brass and strings: ‘In Germany Hindemith has been able to find the most secure balance between an individual tonal language and the general intelligibility music cannot do without. His work for the Youth Movement as well as his efforts in film and mechanical music prove this; but even his contributions to so-called artistic music bear witness to his refusal to confine himself to a secret cell of esoterics.’

The hallmarks of this balance are manifest in the Konzertmusik for brass and strings, Op 50, commissioned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is the final piece in a triptych of similarly titled works from 1929–30, which offer perspicuity while preserving harmonic and structural sophistication. Like the earlier Kammermusik, they recall the concertino and ripieno groups of the Baroque concerto grosso, here applied to two departments of the orchestra. In the first part—itself comprising two sections—the brass states a bold chorale-like theme against energetic string counterpoint. Hindemith continues to make a virtue of the timbral differences between the two instrumental groups, not least in the fugue that dominates the second part of the work. The busy chatter of the exposition is the strings’ domain, while the brass provides three-chord punctuation. The viola, Hindemith’s instrument, leads the middle section, as yearning as the fugue was determined, before the counterpoint kicks in once more.

If the artistic and political debates of the 1920s had seemed quarrelsome, they were child’s play compared with the 1930s. The advent of the Nazis brought with it serious questions about an artist’s duty. Pondering these conundrums, just as his output was branded ‘cultural bolshevism’, Hindemith began work on a new opera. Both Mathis der Maler and the Symphony based on it were written between 1933 and 1934; they recall the life of the sixteenth-century painter Matthias Grünewald, who abandons art to fight in the Peasants’ War. Disappointed by his fellow rebels, Grünewald comes to realize that he has betrayed his most precious gift and, in a particularly visionary scene, his obligation to paint returns.

The three symphonic movements respectively recall the Overture, an interlude from the last scene of the drama and Matthias’s vision of the Temptation of St Anthony (in which he nigh assumes the role of the saint). These movements, like the opera, simultaneously refer to the panels of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, painted for a monastery in the Alsatian town that cared for Plague victims. One of the pictures, the ‘Concert of Angels’, forms the backdrop to the opera’s Overture (and the symphony’s first movement). Here Hindemith quotes from ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ (famous through its Mahlerian guises) and the ‘Lauda Sion salvatorem’ plainchant. The contrapuntal basis of Hindemith’s music remains, yet there is a newly pacific and spiritual quality, which not only reflects the dramatic context in which the music was written but also the composer’s pensive mood.

If the kinesis of Hindemith’s earlier work is less apparent, its dichotomies are even more pronounced. Having begun in G major, the second subject sounds in D flat major. This seemingly unstable tritonal relationship is the very axis on which the opera and symphony turn. We are slowly pulled towards that second key, which is trumpeted in bold Alleluias in the final bars. Of course these polarities can be read in terms of the opposing duties to which Matthias feels drawn, though they also serve a musical purpose. Ultimately they are one and the same thing, in which the objective serves the subjective (and vice versa), making for Hindemith’s richest work.

The allegory presented was, however, bound to antagonize the new powers. After the symphony’s highly successful premiere under Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin in March 1934 matters only got worse. Furtwängler tried to use his influence, not least in an article in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung in November 1934, yet the attempt failed and Goebbels was soon calling Hindemith a ‘dud’, a ‘charlatan’ and an ‘atonal noise-maker’. While Furtwängler returned to the Nazi fold in 1935, Hindemith stuck to his guns. He took an extended period of leave from the Berlin Musikhochschule, from which Jewish colleagues had already been expelled, and finally resigned in March 1937. Having been named the ‘standard-bearer of musical decay’ at the May 1938 Entartete Musik exhibition, running at the same time as the operatic premiere of Mathis der Maler in Zurich, Hindemith decided to move to Switzerland permanently. He settled in a village in the Rhône valley but in 1940, shortly after the outbreak of war, relocated to the USA. The commission from Boston in 1930, and subsequent trips in 1937, 1938 and 1939, had shown that he had the potential to work and earn a living in America, though he was reluctant about making a permanent move.

Like many of his fellows in exile, forced from home due to political affiliations or religious beliefs, Hindemith began to refer back to the tropes and traditions of his musical heritage, not least in the Symphonic Metamorphosis after themes by Carl Maria von Weber. The idea for the work came from the choreographer Léonide Massine, with whom Hindemith had collaborated on the 1938 ballet Nobilissima visione, about the life of St Francis of Assisi. Massine wanted strict arrangements of Weber. Hindemith’s rather free ‘metamorphosis’ of themes from Weber’s four-hand piano music and his 1809 incidental music to Gozzi’s Turandot, Prinzessin von China proved too complex for Massine’s needs and the plans were abandoned. Yet Hindemith’s Weber-inspired creations eventually formed the first and third movements of a new symphonic work, given its premiere in New York on 20 January 1944. This in turn found a theatrical home as George Balanchine’s Metamorphoses, choreographed for the New York City Ballet and performed by them in November 1952.

The first movement of the Symphonic Metamorphosis is based on the fourth of Weber’s Huit pièces for piano duet, Op 60 (1818–19) and Hindemith adds a goodly dose of the Chinoiserie of Gozzi’s Turandot. Flaunting orchestral colour, the music has a great sense of pageantry. Weber’s music for Turandot forms the basis of the theme in the second movement, heard against an eerie shimmer of strings and percussion. The Andantino returns to Weber’s piano duets for its source, specifically the Six pièces, Op 10 (1809); here the strings are particularly disarming following the pawky little tune of the second movement. Coming full circle (and citing another piece from the Op 60 duets), the finale is another confident march. It begins with ominous intent, but soon sheds those macabre tones, providing a veritable orchestral showcase. Moving beyond the dialectics of the 1920s and 1930s, Hindemith’s music is both intelligible and intellectual, as entertaining as it is finely wrought.

Gavin Plumley © 2013

Other albums in this series
'Hindemith: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67977)
Hindemith: Piano Sonatas
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00 CDA67977  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Hindemith: Violin Sonatas' (CDA68014)
Hindemith: Violin Sonatas
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 44.1 kHz £7.85ALAC 24-bit 44.1 kHz £7.85 CDA68014  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 1 – Viola Sonatas' (CDA67721)
Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 1 – Viola Sonatas
'Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 2 – Sonatas for solo viola' (CDA67769)
Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music, Vol. 2 – Sonatas for solo viola
'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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