This 2003 CD brings together nearly all of Paul Hindemith's chamber works for clarinet with piano and/or strings. Beautifully recorded and performed, featuring CSO Assistant Principal Clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and other Chicago artists, it is essential listening for both Hindemith and clarinet enthusiasts.
Hindemith's music has been dismissed by generations of pundits as dry, academic, "intellectual" in some vaguely derogatory sense--terms that could be applied as fairly to the works of J.S. Bach. For other listeners, it can be deeply moving, playful, graceful, endlessly inventive--surprising and refreshing. Though he remains best known for his Mathis der Maler Symphony and other orchestral works, his large catalog of chamber and vocal music is a treasure chest which, for the most part, only music students reach into for their own studies.
Of the works on Yeh's CD program, the 1939 Clarinet Sonata is by far the most familiar, or most recorded (though not exactly the 1812 Overture of chamber music), and it is a masterpiece. Written in Hindemith's distinctive mature style — every bar of the piece could only be by this composer—it features a richly complex opening movement, a quirky, witty scherzo, a dirge that matches the depths of Mathis der Maler in passionate intensity, and a brief, breezy finale that transforms motifs of the earlier movements. All this in less than 20 minutes! The piano is an equal partner in a work rich in contrapuntal games, and on the present recording Easley Blackwood, a fine composer in his own right, is a vigorous match to Yeh's expressive playing. My only reservation is that the opening movement, labeled Mässig bewegt (moderato con moto), is played rather too briskly, at 112 per quarter note instead of the score's suggested 100-108. True, Hindemith calls for the last section of the movement to slow down in stages, ending Sehr ruhig (very calm), so a brisk opening makes more of a contrast; but one of Hindemith's special talents is the ability to write movements with a confident moderate pace — neither dragging nor in a hurry — with plenty of time for us to savor the contrapuntal interplay.
The earliest and yet latest work on the program is a Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, composed in 1923 but revised in 1954. It features a strident, aggressive opening movement that is played in retrograde (i.e., precisely backwards) for the fifth-movement finale. (Curiously, it sounds mellower backwards.) The central movement is a fast Ländler (the German folk-waltz), with Yeh switching to the little Eb clarinet, his specialty in the CSO, handling a virtuosic part with seeming effortlessness. Of the two adjoining slow movements, the first is a moody fugue, the second an arioso featuring a violin melody with pizzicato accompaniment. If not so unmistakably Hindemithian as the Sonata or the Quartet on this CD, it is an engaging work that would be exciting to see performed live.
A nice bonus on the disc is the inclusion of three selections from a 1932 "Music Day" in the small German town of Plön. Hindemith wrote a day's worth of music, suitable for performance by students and amateurs, then rehearsed the ensembles. The works recorded here were part of an evening concert to close the festival. The first of the clarinet/violin duets is pleasant; the second more involving. A four-minute Theme and Four Variations, calmly paced for the most part, would be a thoughtful piece for a warm summer evening.
Concluding the CD is the 1938 three-movement Quartet, a sizable work (at over 28 minutes the longest on the CD) and for me a major discovery. A highlight is the middle movement, marked "very slow," with exquisite long-arched melodies that imply a Romantic longing unusual for Hindemith. The opening movement, yet another "moderate with motion," is alternately vigorous and contemplative, while the finale, the longest movement, has perhaps the most complex structure, with several tempo changes.
A lengthy booklet essay (more detailed on Hindemith's career and musical philosophy than on the works at hand) and Cedille's usual good sound make the CD even more a prize.