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Paul Hindemith
Symphony: "Mathis der Maler;" Concert Music for Strings and Brass; Symphonic Metamorphosis ON menu header menu header menu header menu header Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Leonard Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Review By Max Westler

 

  Well you might ask why I'm about to discuss performances that were recorded more than twenty years ago and have been in the catalogue ever since. The reason is simple and in no small way embarrassing. Until I came upon this disc in a bin of used stock, I had no idea it existed. Ever since Bernstein's death in 1990, I've been wondering why he never got around to recording the "Mathis der Maler" Symphony, given his affection for the works of Paul Hindemith. So, my bad. It was there all along. So consider this review an act of contrition.

But it's more than that too. Enjoy the Musicdoesn't have a "Hall of Fame," but if we did, this recording would surely be among those so honored; for here is the single greatest recording of Hindemith's three most popular orchestral works I've ever heard. So here's a shout-out to those of you who, like me, missed this release, or (more likely) passed it up at the time.

Technically, I can't quite say that Bernstein's Mathis der Maler was worth waiting for when I didn't know it was there in the first place. But this performance surely confirms my suspicion that he would have something very special, very personal to say about this glorious score.

And, turns out, he does. Hindemith was a scrupulous craftsman; and though his orchestral works are not exactly "conductor-proof," the music does indeed lend itself to straightforward interpretations. If a conductor is willing to execute the composer's specifications precisely and just happens to be standing in front of a virtuoso orchestra, an impressive performance is just about guaranteed. It's not a coincidence that some of the best-recorded performances of Mathis have been from an impersonal or "objective" point of view. Here I'm thinking of Guido Cantelli (with the NBC, currently available from Pristine Audio), William Steinberg (with the Boston Symphony and recently reissued), and Herbert Kegel (with the Dresden Orchestra, last seen as part of a collection of Hindemith's orchestral music). I own all three of these performances and have listened to them with great pleasure over the years.

But Bernstein is something else again. Though I'm not a critic who pays much attention to timings; in this instance it's worth noting that Cantelli, Steinberg and Kegel all take 27 minutes or less to get through the symphony. Bernstein is only a minute or so longer, but what a difference that minute makes. I know that some of Bernstein's late performances were controversially slow; his Sibelius Second Symphony and Enigma Variations, to take two infamous examples. But here the spaciousness allows the work to unfold as a unified dramatic arc. For Bernstein, Mathis is truly a symphony (and not a suite from the opera that shares its name); and he conducts it as such, from the solemn opening bars of the "Angelic Concert" to its triumphant conclusion. As one would expect, Bernstein emphasizes the contrasting elements in the score with an expressiveness and intensity that are sometimes startling (even if you're familiar with the music). The second movement ("Entombment") is especially dark and restive, the sense of anguish almost palpable. The opening of the "Temptation of St. Anthony" has never sounded more grotesque and menacing. Few conductors were better at building explosive climaxes; and in that movement Bernstein unleashes a fierce and charged momentum to spectacular effect.

Bernstein recorded both the Concert Music and Symphonic Metamorphosis with the New York Philharmonic for Columbia, now Sony Classical, and as good as those performances are, these more recent ones shine all the brighter. In front of a crack ensemble like the NY Philharmonic, Bernstein sometimes allowed himself to be swept way. Thus those older versions are more impulsive, volatile brisker, looser, maybe a tad too generalized. The Israel performances are more concentrated, varied, and intense. Some conductors have made the unforgivable mistake of approaching the Concert Music as a light and breezy work, a series of chirpy fanfares, sort of like The Royal Fireworks Music on steroids. Even the composer's own performance is fairly literal-minded, a sturdy run-through without any special distinction or character. For Bernstein, the Concert Music is an intensely dramatic piece, and his performance of it emphasizes the extreme contrast between the slower and faster moments in each of its two 8 minute movements. The opening is lumbering, dark, and sharply dissonant: the prelude to a life-and-death conflict projected on a grand scale. The allegro that follows is urgent, heroic, but it's soon overtaken by a mournful adagio. The second movement opens with a vertiginous whirlwind of a fugue that leads to another melancholic interlude. The startling and triumphant finale that rises out of those ashes has an almost elemental force: think Mahler or Nielsen. This is hands-down, far and away, the greatest performance of the Concert Music I've ever heard or hope to hear.

The Symphonic Metamorphosis a piece whose musical slapstick belies its pompous title used to be featured regularly on concert programs, and why not? It's a winning, ingenious and virtuosic showpiece guaranteed to disarm any audience's reservations about hearing "difficult" modern music. Performances are much less frequent these days, for reasons I'll never understand. If you want to send an audience out into the night with their hearts aflame and their heads spinning, the Symphonic Metamorphosis will surely do the trick. Though I have heard some less than effective versions, this is a hard piece to get wrong. Even so, I've always admired Rafael Kubelik's version with the Chicago Symphony (on great-sounding mono Mercury recording from 1951) above all others. But Bernstein matches Kubelik thrill for thrill, and I'd be hard pressed to choose between them. It's difficult to select the highlights in a performance that's all highlights. Bernstein gets just about everything right: the punchy yet determined allegro, the bluesy wail of the scherzo, and the delicate, wistful melancholy of the andantino. The concluding movement is for me one of the most exuberant, life-affirming statements in all of music: a soul-rousing march that will make you want to stand up and cheer. But I strongly advise against it, for the barrage of brass and percussion at the climax will knock you off your feet. And you're probably not insured for injuries sustained during listening sessions. I know from oft repeated and bitter experience that I'm not.

Though Bernstein had close and affectionate associations with several orchestras over his long career, the bond he formed with the Israel Philharmonic was perhaps the most enduring and intense. Bernstein first conducted the orchestra in 1947, at the very beginning of his career, and he was a welcome and regular guest until his death in 1990. These recordings were made just the year before his death, and prove that the chemistry between conductor and orchestra blazed white-hot even at the end. The orchestra's brilliant response here is an act of passionate devotion. The sound is a little bright on top, but otherwise spacious and transparent. The bass packs a considerable wallop.

If you're a fan of Hindemith's orchestral music, you need to have this disc. If you're a fan of Hindemith's orchestral music and (as is more likely the case) already own this disc, well then you're one step ahead of me, and I salute you.

 

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