About this Recording
8.573201-02 - HINDEMITH, P.: Piano Concertos (Complete) (Biret, Yale Symphony, Toshiyuki Shimada)
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Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
The Complete Piano Concertos


Respected as one of the most distinguished viola-players of his time, Hindemith devoted the earlier part of his career to performance, first as a violinist and then as violist in the Amar-Hindemith Quartet, while developing his powers as a composer and his distinctive theories of harmony and of the place of the composer in society. His name is particularly associated with the concept of Gebrauchsmusik, and the composer as craftsman. He was prolific in composition and wrote music in a variety of forms. Attacked by the National Socialists, he left his native Germany in 1935, taking leave from the Berlin Musikhochschule, where he had served as professor of composition for some eight years. In that year he responded to an invitation from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to advise on musical education in Turkey and, during several periods spent in Ankara, he was able to provide a plan for national education and establish a Conservatory and other institutions, while at the same time helping to find places for Jewish musicians forced to leave Germany. In 1940 he settled in the United States, teaching at Yale University, a position he combined after the war with a similar position at the University of Zurich. He died in Frankfurt/Main in 1963, only a few miles away from his native Hanau.

Hindemith wrote his Thema mit vier Variationen (Die vier Temperamente) für Klavier und Streicher (Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings) in 1940, taking as a basis the four humours of traditional Western medical theory. According to this doctrine, in which liquids in the body were associated with temperaments, a predominance of black bile indicated melancholy, blood a sanguine or confident nature, whilst phlegm and yellow bile denoted respectively phlegmatic and choleric dispositions. This provided a platform for both medical practice and dramatic characterization. Hindemith’s treatment of the four temperaments united them by the use of variations, so that there was an underlying thematic essence to the whole work. The four temperaments in Hindemith’s treatment are distinct from each other but they originate from the same source.

The theme is set out in three sections. The first two are designed as a contrasting pair, with lyrical writing for the strings, marked Moderato, and an Allegro assai passage for the piano. The third section, a Siciliano, introduced by a solo violin, accompanied by solo plucked strings, brings these contrasting elements together. A similar approach can be seen when the theme is transformed to melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric temperaments respectively through variations, the main characteristics of each temperament serving as clues to the moods of each movement. The Melancholic first variation starts with a rhythmic variation of the opening section of the theme for the piano, joined by a muted elegiac solo violin, followed by a Presto for muted strings and a final slow funeral march for piano and strings. The Sanguine is a rapid waltz and the Phlegmatic starts with an instantly recognisable version of the first section of the theme, proceeding similarly to the second and third sections. The final variation, Choleric, brings passion and contrast, before strings and piano are united in a final Maestoso C major.

Hindemith intended this work for one of the leading choreographers of Sergey Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes, Léonide Massine, basing it visually on the sixteenth-century Flemish artist Brueghel’s painting of the four temperaments. Differences between the concepts of Hindemith and Massine, however, led to a staging by the choreographer George Balanchine. The ballet The Four Temperaments had its première on 20 November 1946 in New York with 25 dancers of the American Ballet Company, and was one of the earliest experimental works, fusing classical steps with a lean and angular style.

The Konzert für Klavier und Orchester (Concerto for Piano and Orchestra) was written for the Puerto Rican pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá, who had performed some of Hindemith’s piano and chamber works. Hindemith began the composition during a vacation in Maine in August 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, and completed the first movement in Maine, with the other two movements written in New Haven. The work was given its première by Sanromá and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Szell. Although in Hindemith’s compositional style the solo instrument is rarely put in a special position, the piano part of the concerto requires extreme technical skill. As usual in Hindemith’s compositions, however, the orchestra and the soloist develop the musical material together. The two principal themes of the movement are first introduced by the orchestra, then by the piano with slight differences. The form of the movement resembles sonata-form, with sections divided by cadenzas, but it lacks the tonal relations of classical sonata-form and can be only seen as Hindemith’s own original formal design. The second movement is in three-part form; section A of the movement is stable tonally, whereas section B is unstable. Section A returns as a kind of re-treatment of the first section A. Two of the three themes are introduced in section A, one by the orchestra and the other by the piano. The third theme is introduced in section B but unlike the other themes it is transformed many times by different instrumental combinations and layers. The final movement has the title Tre Fontane and has five contrasting sections: Canzona, March, Valse lente, Caprice and Tre Fontane. The movement’s material is based on an obscure dance tune of the fourteenth or fifteenth century, varied harmonically and rhythmically. It might be expected that Hindemith would use the form of theme and variations. He reverses the order, however, with the original form of the theme introduced at the end, after its variations.

In 1923 Hindemith had responded to a commission from the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the Great War, for a concerto for the left hand. The Klaviermusik mit Orchester (Klavier nur linke Hand) (Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand)) met the same fate as the concerto provided by Prokofiev. The piece failed to please Paul Wittgenstein but he retained the performance rights, neither performing nor releasing the concerto, which remained unknown until the manuscript was found among the papers of his wife, who died in 2001. Hindemith described this piece as simple and completely unproblematical. The piano part, which is figurative rather than melodic, distinctly shows that Hindemith constructed it considering a ‘left hand only’ pianist in an ensemble, perhaps seeing it as a compositional challenge not as one for technical display for the left hand. Although the piano is the solo instrument, the piece can hardly be considered a concerto in the classical sense; it is rather closer to a Baroque concerto.

Kammermusik Nr 2 (Chamber Music No 2), for piano and twelve solo instruments, the second of a series of seven such works, was promised to Hermann Scherchen, one of the outstanding conductors of the twentieth century, whose name is often associated with prominent composers of that period such as Richard Strauss, Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Edgar Varèse. Hindemith started work on the piece soon after marrying Gertrud, the daughter of his teacher Ludwig Rottenberg, on 15 May 1924, but by August he had only managed to compose one movement. He spent most of his time between August and October 1924 focussing on the work. Although the planned conductor of the première on 31 October 1924 at the Frankfurter Museumsgesellschaft was Scherchen, it was actually conducted by Clemens Krauss, but Hindemith had always had Emma Lübbecke-Job in mind as the pianist. He wanted to show his appreciation to her for being one of the few supporters of his music, while, as the composer said, nobody else cared. Although Hindemith classified it as chamber music, he constructed it in a way that would allow the pianist to display her pianistic abilities.

Except Kammermusik Nr 1 (Chamber Music No 1), Op 24, for small orchestra, Hindemith wrote each of his Kammermusiken for different ensembles and different soloists, formally recalling both the Baroque and the following period, but in a modern style in distinct contrast with late romanticism. The ensemble for Kammermusik Nr 2 consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, cello and double bass, twelve instruments in total. The first movement begins with a short, dry introductory chord but continues with the energetic and virtuoso lines of the piano, resembling Baroque keyboard writing, while the ensemble offers dialogue with the piano through the motives of the piano part. The mysterious and solemn slow movement leads to a short “Little Potpourri”, thus avoiding too many “movements”, in which Hindemith uses two different time signatures, 3/8 in the ensemble parts and 4/4 in the piano, offering a theoretically polyrhythmic structure, although this may not be detected by the listener. With the final movement the character of the first movement returns. The ensemble lays the groundwork for the piano’s rhythmically complicated passages with an introduction which uses motives that are often heard fragmented and diversified as the ensemble accompanies the solo part. This, in turn, creates an integration of diverse elements. Although this integration is interrupted by the piano alone, towards the end of the movement it is re-established.

Composed in 1930, Hindemith’s Konzertmusik (Concert Music), Op 49, was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, with whom he was to continue his professional relations after he emigrated to the United States. Emma Lübbecke-Job was the pianist at the première on 12 October 1930 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Hugo Kortschak. The piece is an example of Hindemith’s search for diverse sound colour, with the use of four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, two harps and piano. The first movement begins with a short solemn introduction by the brass instruments. The first motive of the theme on tuba, heard throughout the piece, dominates the movement. After this short introduction, the piano enters playing this motive in unison but after a short trill, the piano part becomes relatively independent in a contrapuntal texture. The second movement, with its marking Lebhaft (Lively), begins in the manner of a solo fugato, continuing in toccata style. Sharp chords from the brass interrupt and eventually bring it to a close. Shattering fanfares and virtuoso piano passages combine to offer an almost cheeky, spirited dialogue, from which baroque solo elements leap out repeatedly. The following variations, Sehr ruhig (Very calm), evoke a mysterious atmosphere, created by reducing the players to piano and harps. The final movement is like a wake-up call from this mysterious world with the heroic return of the brass instruments. For the first time in his career Hindemith quotes a folk-tune and develops this with harps and muted-brass, until the chordal structure of the beginning is reached. According to the note on the score, the piano should not predominate as a solo instrument in this movement, although it ends in a similar atmosphere to that of the beginning with the piano taking the lead.

Abridged from a note by Elif Damla Yavuz

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