Paul Hindemith

Hindemith has a certain reputation as being academic and dry as a composer. Certainly he was a craftsman who used form following Bach to construct his huge output of compositions. To ignore him however you will miss a great deal of pleasure from works which include rhythmic bite and express a real depth of feeling. In his early years during the nineteen twenties he was regarded as avant-garde producing works, like Sancta Susanna, which caused consternation (it still does) and some near riotous music, as in the first Kammermusik.
You hang around waiting for ages the suddenly, like buses, two turn up at once. Two DVDs of Hindemith’s opera about the obsessive goldsmith Cardillac have just appeared. A series of murders mystify the townspeople. Eventually a pattern emerges pointing to Cardillac himself.
I had the opportunity of hearing Paul Hindemith conduct on two occasions, each concert containing his own music together with that of Anton Bruckner. To me Hindemith’s use of brass particularly echoes Bruckner. The finale of the Mathis der Maler Symphony is a case in point.
In one concert with the London Symphony Orchestra Hindemith included his Concer Music for Brass and Strings and the orchestral version of “Das Marienleben” sung on this occasion by Theresa Stich-Randall whose death has recently been announced. Bruckner’s Third Symphony completed the programme.
Das Marienleben began as a cycle of seetings of poems by Rilke for voice and piano. Hindemith selected some for orchestration. They are moving. A recording by Karita Mattila I find very satisfying.
On the other occasion Hindemith combined a performance of his American Requiem “When Lilacs Lat in the Dooryard Bloom’d” with a Bruckner Mass. The Requiem seems to have become highly prized by Americans with their stirring settings of the words of Walt Whitman. It is also closely associated with Robert Shaw who commissioned the work and made a fine recording for Telarc with his own Chorale.
At Covent Garden I saw a performance of the opera Mathis der Maler conducted bt Esa Pekka Salonen. I find the story of the man, again an artist, moving and enlightening. It introduced me to the paintings of Grunewald, including St Maurice. Hindemith was inspired by the Isenheim altarpiece giving titles to the three movements of the Mathis Symphony. In this production Peter Sellars brings in peasants with Kalashnikovs and Molotov Cocktails! Unfortunately I had to leave before the end to catch the last train back to Birmingham.


The first acquaintance I had with Hindemith’s music was the awkwardly titled Symphonic Metamorphoses of themes by Carl Maria von Weber, hardly the ad-man’s dream. This was a Mercury recording issued in the UK by HMV of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Kubelik and it was coupled with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. It has been reissued on CD.
Hindemith left performances of his works in series for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra (originally Angel in US and Columbia in UK) and Deutsch Gramophon with the Berlin Philharmonic. The EMI set had the lesser known works including the Symphonia Serena, Noblissima Visione and Clarinet Concerto. The Concert Music for Strings and Brass was coupled with the Symphony in B flat for Concert Band. Dennis Brain’s famous recoding of the Horn Concerto was included. There is one other recording of the Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh as soloist and the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra which has become a collector’s item. That was issued by Decca.
The DGG series includes the Symphony Mathis der Maler, Symphonic Metamorphosis and Four Temperaments for piano and orchestra. I have to say I prefer an earlier recording of the Mathis de Maler symphony from the nineteen thirties before Hindemith’s exile from Nazi Germany. It is now issued by Dutton together with Der Schwanendreher for viola and orchestra with Hindemith as soloist this time. It is much more urgent than not only his but other more recent accounts, including Abbado.
There are a number of extensive collections of the orchestral music, the one I’m most familiar with being the series for Chandos with the BBC Philharmonic and Yan Pascal Tortelier. This includes the Pittsburg Symphony and the other symphony taken from music for an opera, this time Die Harmonie Die Welt. Vigorous dynamic performances with a sound quality to match.
Many years ago I heard a transatlantic broadcast from Boston of Monteux conducting a compelling performance of the ballet on the life of St Francis, Noblissima Visione. It combined rhythmic drive with serenity, particularly in the inner movements. I was somewhat amazed to see a DVD issued with this work coupled with Brahms and Stravinsky. I found that my memory of that performance absolutely confirmed, much to my amazement. All too often returning to old haunts and revisiting treasured moments ends up in disappointment!
There is a DVD including Hindemith conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Concert Music fro Strings and Brass, a highly enjoyable and exciting work which belies the academic “dry-as-dust” image. Also included is the Brahms Academic Festival Overture and once again Bruckner. Infuriatingly it is only the first movement of the Seventh Symphony.
The chamber works of Hindemith are numerous and cover every conceivable instrument and combination it seems. Glenn Gould performed the three Piano Sonatas (I’ve tried struggling through the Third!). The Kammermusik is worth hearing with two recent sets from Abbado and Chailly (DGG and Decca) reminding us of the avant-garde composer of the twenties, the first replete with police whistle.
An early LP I acquired was of Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Noblissima Visione coupled with the Brahms Variations. The Hindemith was released on CD coupled with Klempere’s Bruckner Eight. (It appears not to be readily available with a single copy at Amazon priced at £120! In most cases there are plenty of bargains to be had from this source of the Hindemith works discussed here and more).
I am reminded of the story about Klemperer when he could not fulfil his annual engagement for a Beethoven cycle. He suggested to Walter Legge that he should engage Hindemith which Legge duly did. Afterwards when Klemperer was with Legge and his wife Elizabeth Schwarzkopf he laughed out loud at Legge saying “Hindemith, he asked Hindemith!”
More about Hindemith.

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