Although he wrote concertos and sonatas for practically every instrument of the modern symphony orchestra (not to mention the viola d'amore and alto horn), Paul Hindemith lavished a particular amount of attention on his own instrument, the viola, on which he was a concert virtuoso in his earlier years. Lawrence Power, a distinguished violist of our own time, has been recording the complete works on the Hyperion label: a CD of viola-piano sonatas, another of solo-viola sonatas, and now one containing the four works for viola and orchestra. Collectors who have purchased Volumes 1 and 2 will want the latest disc, and indeed any Hindemith fan should find it rewarding — though there is some real competition.
The earliest work of the four (though Hyperion saves it for last on the program, probably to end with an upbeat mood) is the Kammermusik No. 5 of 1927, premiered by the composer and Otto Klemperer. Like other music from Hindemith's early years, the seven Kammermusiken, all but the first for a solo instrument and mostly wind accompaniment, are brash, practically nose-thumbing, not too far from the sardonic world of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera (premiered just a year later than the viola concerto), but notable for the vigorous counterpoint and exploitation of wind colors that will distinguish Hindemith's later orchestral works as well. The complete set has been recorded in recent years by such major forces as Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic and Ricardo Chailly with the Concertgebouw.
No. 5, in the traditional four movements (fast-slow-scherzo-finale) but far from traditional in sound textures, is written for a largish chamber orchestra of 8 woodwinds, 6 brass, and 4 each of cellos and string basses, plus the solo viola, which plays practically non-stop and has a fearsome cadenza in the march-finale. Power and Atherton/BBC-Scottish are impressive in a direct comparison with Wolfram Christ/Abbado and Kim Kashkashian/Chailly in the complete sets, though each performance has its own felicities, like the extreme contrast that Abbado and his EMI engineers bring out between the shrill wind-band sonorities of the march-finale and the solo viola. (I heard the original set rather than the budget edition that includes Der Schwanendreher with different forces.) Chailly and the Concertgebouw are pretty witty too in playing Hindemith's parody of a Bavarian military march. Still, Hyperion offers the best sound of the three: warmly realistic with a clearer stereo location for each instrument in the chamber ensemble. And Power/Atherton are the most compelling of the three in the fugue-like scherzo.
All the same, there is formidable competition in a recording on the CPO label, with Brett Dean, viola, and the Queensland Symphony under Werner Andreas Albert, performing the same four works as Power. Though dating from 1999, this CD too has excellent sound, with the solo viola especially vividly captured. In the somber slow movement the players impart more of a tragic mood than in any of the other versions (and take it much slower than all but Christ/Abbado), though there is something to be said for Power's more refined and serene detachment. Dean certainly flings himself into the rather crazy cadenza with more abandon than anyone else.
Probably the least-known piece on the new CD is the Konzertmusik, premiered by Hindemith himself and Wilhelm Furtwängler — in 1930 according to Hyperion's booklet, or 1928 according to CPO's, but definitely published in 1930, soon after Hindemith had premiered viola concertos by William Walton and Darius Milhaud. It's a magnificent 5-movement work, with an orchestration similar to that of the Kammermusik No. 5, full of fresh invention, energy, playfulness and beauty at every surprising moment. Both Dean/Albert and Power/Atherton offer brilliant readings, with the opening movement especially compelling in the older recording, but the fleet third movement is pretty breathtaking as Power dashes through it. The sound on CPO is just a little strident or harsh compared to the easy warmth of Hyperion, but that stridency does spotlight the personalities of individual players, and overall I prefer Dean's richer sound and more vigorous style.
Der Schwanendreher (The Swan-Turner), premiered in 1935 with yet another great conductor, Willem Mengelberg, accompanying the composer-soloist, is certainly Hindemith's most popular work for viola and orchestra. Again it features a small orchestra with no upper strings: just 6 woodwinds, 5 brass, 4 cellos and 3 basses, though also an important part for harp. The music is somewhat more traditional in tonality, and for the most part less contrapuntal and with more opportunities for solo display, than the earlier works, but then, its three movements are based upon German folk songs, including the title song about the man who roasts swans on a spit at a fair. Indeed, Hindemith published a brief program referring to a wandering fiddler who plays sad and happy songs and dances at a medieval fair. It must be said that although the work has its jocular passages (e.g., the trombone statement of a folk tune halfway through the first movement and the jolly woodwind opening of the finale), it often seems contemplative, especially on the part of the solo viola — more of a rumination upon old songs than a playful transformation of them.
Der Schwanendreher has often been recorded, including by William Primrose (out of print at the moment). I listened to a Columbia/Odyssey LP with Paul Doktor and the London Symphony conducted by Edward Downes, and liked the soloist's weighty tone — more a bard than a fiddler — but the sound is only adequate compared to the new CD. Again I found Dean/Albert more compelling than Power/Atherton, for their rhythmic incisiveness and attention to the character of each episode.
When in England for the British premiere of Der Schwanendreher, to be heard on the BBC under Adrian Boult, Hindemith was faced with the sudden cancellation of his piece because of the death of King George V. Invited to play a more somber work but unable to come up with something suitable from the viola repertoire, Hindemith actually composed an 8-minute piece for viola and strings and premiered it the next day. The Trauermusik (Mourning Music) is in four continuous sections, the first evoking the mood of the slow movement of the composer's Mathis der Maler Symphony without directly quoting from it, and the final section alluding to a Bach chorale, one based on the same tune as the British hymn known as "Old Hundredth." Here I found Power and Atherton more impassioned than Dean/Albert, with Power's more refined manner surprisingly well suited to the music.
In short, if you have the CPO release already, you needn't seek out the new Hyperion unless you're a viola specialist, but if you aren't familiar with these four works, Power and Atherton will provide an excellent introduction.