Hindemith wrote six sonatas for stringed instruments, four of which were for the violin, his own first instrument, and that upon which his earliest professional experience as a musician was founded. He was just 19 years of age when he became Konzertmeister of the Orchestra of Frankfurt Opera, although he subsequently switched from violin to viola, becoming one of its foremost exponents and gaining a reputation both as a soloist and later as a chamber musician as violist of the Amar Quartet. A figure of considerable influence, even notoriety (he was possibly the only composer I who ever claimed to be able to play all the instruments of the orchestral), and seldom out of the cultural press, particularly after the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Hindemith was censured for his music’s alleged degeneracy and decadence and publicly harangued by the Nazis during the infamous 1938 Düsseldorf Entartete Musik Exhibition, in which much progressive German music of the period was senselessly derided.
Hindemith’s music for his adopted first instrument has been comprehensively surveyed for Hyperion by the acclaimed British violist Lawrence Power (reviewed in June 2009, April 2010 and January 2011) and it seems only natural that the violin sonatas should now be added to these existing recordings. With the bar already set at a very high level by the overall excellence of Power’s recordings, it seemed clear that violinist Tanja Becker-Bender and pianist Peter Nagy would have to turn in outstanding accounts of the violin sonatas: these new performances prove to be everything that one could wish for in these taxing and often elusive works.
All four of Hindemith’s violin sonatas can be accommodated comfortably on a single CD and the inclusion of the familiar ‘Meditation’ from Nobilissima visione (1938) as a filler is a rather more useful option than the two-minute fragment of a conjectural finale for the Op 11 No 1 Sonata, which is offered by Ulf Wallin and Roland Pöntinen on their rival BIS survey of these works.
Hindemith’s sonatas were written in pairs, or at least in close proximity one to another, as was the case with the Op 11 set. The earlier work, written during the composer’s service on the Western Front in 1918, was premiered in Frankfurt in June 1919, at the first concert devoted exclusively to Hindemith’s music. Becker-Bender and Nagy deliver a strikingly vivid and motoric reading of the opening movement, which shaves practically half a minute off the pretty fast basic tempo adopted by Wallin and Pöntinen. But their performance doesn’t overlook any passing detail of phrasing or dynamics, and is so closelv attuned to the prescribed needs of the music that this playing could hardly be bettered. There’s much to admire, too, in the second sonata, argued with a terse rigour that strongly reflects Hindemith’s Schumannesque performance direction for the opening movement, Mit starrem Trotz—to be played with ‘stiff defiance’. This is trenchant, stubbornly resilient music and tremendously well played by Becker-Bender, who again brings to the piece a sense of anxiety and urgency not always so evident on BIS.
The later Sonatas, in E major (1935) and C major (1939) could hardly be more different in form, concept and content. As Malcolm MacDonald suggests in his booklet notes, it is possible to recognize the various phases of Hindemith’s creative life throughout the four sonatas. The E major work seems to be characterized by what the booklet notes describe as ‘profound serenity despite moments of tension’, and in that sense, at least, the piece may be said to anticipate the 1937 ballet on the life of St Francis, Nobilissima visione (the ‘Meditation’ occupies the final track on this disc).
The final Sonata in C reverts to the defiant and truculent style that seems to inform so much of Hindemith’s output, at least as far as the opening movement goes, but this acerbity of utterance is offset in the deliberately paced and reflective slow movement (with its own interpolated scherzo part way through).
The finale takes the form of a huge and labyrinthine fugue of the kind that would have delighted Max Reger, and the form and musical language, powerfully argued and severe, is often suggestive of Reger’s own complex polyphony. This work receives a particularly fine reading here, bringing this valuable release to a powerfully imposing and majestic conclusion.