Ensemble Wien-Berlin

Hindemith: Kleine Kammermusik; Sonaten für Bläser

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Although his 1995 centennial has generated a fair number of recordings, Paul Hindemith has not been treated kindly in the compact disc era overall. While fellow twentieth-century composers, most notably Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ravel, and Rachmaninov, have flourished on silver, interest by the labels in this great German composer's music has curiously been lacking. In a sense the neglect is understandable: just a look at the headnote to this 1996 recording informs one of a handful of works for odd or unpopular combinations of instruments. Hindemith didn't care that he might be going against the grain in writing works like these; he desired merely to compose good music, the instrumental constraints foisted upon him by such choices apparently not frustrating his fertile mind. And compose good music he did, as this new Sony disc powerfully affirms.

The Flute and Horn Sonatas are masterpieces of chamber music. The former piece vaguely reminds one of Prokofiev's tragic Eighth Piano Sonata. Yet this work is stately, heroic, hopeful, despite the political troubles plaguing Hindemith at that time, troubles that would prompt him to leave Nazi Germany for Switzerland in 1938, wherefrom he would depart for the U.S. in 1940. The Flute Sonata opens with one of those flowing, majestic, typically Hindemithian themes that certainly wouldn't be out of place in his opera Mathis der Maler. The whole movement exudes a confidence and optimism, the melody spawning motifs and variations which infuse the music with a lasting freshness. The second movement suggests sorrow and struggle and loneliness. But Hindemith never wallows in gloom here; he remains philosophical, eschews self-pity. The finale begins with a forward-looking, sprightly theme, but turns reflective and slows to a halt, an underlying pessimism emerging that threatens to provoke a collapse. There follows the heroic, all-conquering coda, however, that resolves the struggle resoundingly.

Perhaps owing more to the nature of the instruments than to the musical design of the work, the Sonata for Horn & Piano comes across as a bit more rugged. Yet even here, Hindemith exhibits delicacy and tenderness in his writing, especially in the lyrical second movement, which is dominated by the otherwise egalitarian piano. The whole work glows with a cogent life-affirming resoluteness that befits this composer's noble life and noble compositions.

The other sonatas here are hardly minor works, barely a notch below their disc-mate siblings. The principal instrument in each is in the same family: the English horn (also known as the cor anglais) is a step below the oboe; the bassoon, two steps. The Sonata for English Horn & Piano is deftly scored and full of color: playful here and exotically mournful there, the work captures many moods with astonishingly imaginative skill. The Sonata for bassoon & piano is anything but the dour-sounding work one might expect; its second movement is especially lovely. As for the disc's leadoff piece, the Kleine Kammermusik, it is a delight in its witty exploration of the sonic realms of the five featured instruments.

Some of these sonatas have received attention of late from two minor labels, Camerata and cpo. I have not heard either of these issues but am fully confident the performances on this Sony disc are eminently recommendable. Pianist Ferenc Bognar is especially excellent, capturing the Hindemithian idiom with an intuitive grasp that never goes astray. All the players here, in fact, play at or near his level. Sony offers superb sound, too. If you like Hindemith, or think you might, don't miss this disc.

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