1917, 1922, 1927, 2012, Music

Hindemith: Kammermusik (2012) by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado, et al.

This set collects Hindemith’s Kammermusik compositions – two are actual chamber music pieces, seven are concertos – and for reasons I may not ever understand, pairs them with a violin sonata and an incomplete work.

The first Kammermusik is a crazy, vibrant piece that manages to combine fairly strong melodies (relatively speaking) with the kind of aggressively discordant changes and percussion punctuations modernism is known for. One of my favourite Hindemith pieces. The third movement stands out because it is so peaceful, but it’s practically impressionist.

The second Kammermusik begins with some of Hindemith’s brilliant writing for piano – which always threatens to go atonal but never does – before it’s joined by the wind instruments, that do a great job of confusing my ear as to which instruments they are. The second movement has a thriller or horror movie quality to it that’s quite appealing.

The third Kammermusik, confusingly known as “No. 2,” is a bouncy piano concerto that doesn’t quite have the same daring as the first two works, but is still really worth a listen. It’s engaging and entertaining, even though it’s also aggressively modernist.

The fourth Kammermusik, confusingly titled “No. 3,” is a cello concerto. It remains as aggressively modernist as the other works in the series, though, like the earlier piano concerto, it fails to be on the absolute forefront of the revolution. Hindemith isn’t willing to completely break from tradition, which is both admirable and frustrating. This is a nice piece, but it’s not among the great cello music of even this part of the century.

The 7th Kammermusik is a concerto for a baroque version of the viola, with more strings. Like many of Hindemith’s concertos, there are parts for other solo instruments, which is something that used to be unusual. Again, he aggressively plays with classical conventions in ways that manage to be both avant garde and accessible. It’s a little less appealing to me than the earlier viola concerto, because I feel like he’s done it before, but the use of the baroque version of the viola is neat.

The 8th and final Kammermusik is a concerto for organ. The organ was long ignored/disrespected among Romantic composers and this is likely one of the modernist works that helped bring it back into vogue. Like the other concertos in this series, this one has a great opening that sounds like the “classical” equivalent of dixieland, everything going everywhere all at once. Then the organ chimes in and things get a little bit more normal. A pretty major work for the organ, I think.

The first solo violin sonata – I have to specify that, since Hindemith wrote sonatas for both solo and accompanied violin – starts off with a melodic little, vaguely jig-like or folk song-like passage that pleases but doesn’t really sound like anything too radical. The second movement is the slow one, but is considerably more daring musically, to my ears. The third movement is one of those that really shows off the abilities of the instrument and the player. It’s probably my favourite. Although it’s not on the level of his viola music, I still think this is a pretty great showcase for the violin. Why it’s in this collection is another story.

When I was younger, I thought sonata meant “solo.” Obviously it doesn’t. But it usually implies small groups – since the Baroque era, trios at the most. (I know of some baroque sonatas that employ 6 or 7 instruments.) So the idea of a sonata for 10 instruments seems a little out there. Also, I don’t have any details about the work, so I don’t know which part is incomplete. The opening movement may be the most beautiful piece of music Hindemith ever wrote. (This is a composer not necessarily known for his beauty, bear in mind.) I can think of nothing else of his I’ve ever heard that approaches this in terms of beauty. There are more clever or inventive passages, but nothing like this. The second movement is extremely short, so that might be the incomplete one. It’s much more in line with what I know of Hindemith: traditional conventions combined with modern ideas creating something that sounds deceptively traditional. The third movement picks up where the second left off (there is no proper slow movement, unless the first is taken as the slow one) but is more noticeably modern. On the whole, this is a piece of music that probably deserves more recognition and performance than it gets. A shockingly good piece of music, given that it was never finished.

The collection is nearly essential, containing some of Hindemith’s best music. But also containing a sonata which has no place next to these large “chamber” works. If you can get over that (you should be able to), this is great.


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