HINDEMITH: Viola Sonata, op. 11/4. Sonata for Solo Viola, op. 25/1. Viola Sonata (1939). Capriccio for Cello and Piano, op. 8/1 (arr. Gandelsman).
Yuri Gandelsman (viola); Ralph Votapek (piano).
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Apparently, Hindemith could play every standard orchestral instrument at least passably. Known as a viola virtuoso, he created perhaps the most significant body of Modern work for the instrument -- sonatas, concerti, and fugitive pieces -- as well as revived the old viola d'amore. He wrote music for that as well. This CD provides a retrospective of some of his chamber works.

The very early viola sonata (1919) shows the composer transitioning from late-Romantic to Modern composer. It begins with a lovely, very Brahmsian singing idea -- developed, however, in a Max-Regerish or Korngoldian way, both contrapuntally and harmonically. Three movements flow without a break, giving the effect more of a fantasy. The final two movements, variation sets, make heavy use of counterpoint, with the finale ending in a fugue. However, the counterpoint differs from the kind one encounters in Hindemith's mature work -- again, more Max Reger's melodic commentary rather than Bach's rhythmic and structural intensity. Hindemith, however, creates leaner textures than Reger

Truth to tell (and as a huge admirer of the composer), I find Hindemith's solo string works awfully dry and sometimes even turgid. His brand of neo-classicism I normally react well to tends to become in these pieces dead cold, mostly the case of the solo viola sonata here. One waits vainly for the clarity of Bach, the readily-apprehensible structures of song and dance, as opposed to post-Wagnerian fantasias. The score comes from 1922, a period of stylistic unsettledness for the composer, as he moves around from a kind of Dada to Expressionism to jazz to the early bases for his mature style. The Suite "1922" for piano, with movements like "Shimmy," appeared as the next opus number. For me, the sonata never gels, either as a whole and in terms of the individual movements.

With the Sonata of 1939 (after he hit op. 50 with the 1930 Concert Music for Brass and Strings, Hindemith gave up on opus numbers; he had over thirty more years of music to write and resorted to dates instead), we find ourselves in the middle of Hindemith's composing maturity. The first movement, bold and handsome, moves mainly in broad notes, with faster duplets intensifying the rhythm. The next, a scherzo, plays rhythmic games obliterating and shifting the downbeat. At one point, the viola and the piano follow different downbeats. Unlike the cheap way of doing this, the rhythms co-ordinate. You seem to hear the two instruments phasing. While not the most lyrical of Hindemith's slow movements, the third (marked "Very slowly. Free") nevertheless suits the sonata, particularly at that point. Traces of post-Wagnerian ideas linger in some of the phrases, even at this late date. It functions not so much as a movement in its own right, but as a transition to the finale, which it runs right into without a break. A theme with two variations, the last movement begins with a sense of balance, with both viola and piano elements in clear equilibrium and mostly two planes of contrapuntal activity. I confess that I can't follow the variations without a score, mainly because I can't keep the theme in my head. For one thing (it's both long, between 2 and 3 minutes) and complex, but that obscurity ultimately doesn't matter. A master shaper of musical time, Hindemith gives me plenty of other things to think about, including once again blurring the downbeat. The music every so often seems to become untethered, although it snaps quickly back to the pulse. The first variation scurries about; the second bubbles like an angry boogie-woogie and recalls the mood of parts of the opening movement. Indeed, it can sound at times like variants of the first-movement ideas.

Hindemith composed the unapologetic bonbon Capriccio for cello in 1917 as part of a set of three cello pieces. Gandelsman, who also studied cello, arranged it for viola. It evokes the fun of country dance fiddling. Never having heard the original, I can however say that it sounds perfectly idiomatic for the viola. Hindemith, a believer in arrangement himself as a way to increase the use of a good score, would have probably lifted a congratulatory schnapps to the violist.

I do think other violists better technicians than Gandelsman, who has a roughish tone and who occasionally falls flat on individual notes, but very few who match his deep musical intelligence. As much as I dislike the solo viola sonata, Gandelsman shapes it best of any other performance I've heard. Few pianists match Ralph Votapek in sheer musicality. His Hindemith has plenty of power but also plenty of witty fantasy. Both Gandelsman and Votapek turn the all-too-frequent view of Hindemith from pedantic composing machine to a poet.

S.G.S. (March 2014)