Jiří Bělohlávek / Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Hindemith: Mathis der Maler; Konzertmusik for Brass & Strings

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These recordings, taken from the early '90s, came at an intense period in the Czechoslovakian region: in 1993, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. At about the same time, the Czech Philharmonic had some civil unrest of its own: after some growing pains in its organization, in 1994 it voted to oust music director Jirí Belohlávek in favor of Gerd Albrecht.

This release features the embattled Belohlávek conducting his former orchestra in the era immediately preceding his departure in a performance of Hindemith's symphonic masterpiece Mathis der Maler. Ironically, Hindemith's work also had significant pains of its own: the fierce political climate in Germany as the Nazis rose to power made performances of new works hard to come by. Mathis, completed in 1934, was no exception. It began as a commission from conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (who also helped secure the first performance) and is based on real-life artist Mathias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece for the Monastery of St. Anthony (1515). A three-paneled artistic triumph, the Isenheim was on display in order to give hope to victims of the sometimes-fatal disease ergotism (often caused by the ingestion of moldy bread among peasants). The images depicted include the Crucifixion, Jesus, St. Sebastian, and St. Anthony.

The challenges of performing Hindemith are not easy to overcome, and here Belohlávek has some problems. Chief among them is his rough, coarse sound, hardly suitable for the work's first movement, "Engelkonzert" (Angel's Concert). In addition to setting the wrong atmosphere, Belohlávek's approach also limits the amount of Hindemith's counterpoint that can be revealed. Things do get better, though. In the second movement, "Grablegung" (Entombment), based on Grunewald's depiction of Christ's burial, Belohlávek seems to lighten up and the Czech Philharmonic responds swiftly, subtly, and beautifully. It is the third movement, though, that demonstrates Belohlávek's capabilities best: he creates a frenzied atmosphere that overflows with a wildness of emotion throughout Hindemith's thick, weighty harmonies -- all the way to the exuberant, climactic end. And, while Belohlávek does seem to bring a lyrical sense to the music that is not necessarily inherent within, the overall effect sounds too forced, heavy, and sluggish.

The Concerto for winds, harp, and orchestra and the Konzertmusik for brass and strings fill out the remainder of this compact disc. Neither of these pieces has enjoyed particular popularity. The Konzertmusik was completed in 1931 on the fulfillment of a commission from Sergey Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary. Belohlávek's reading, while aggressive, deep, and heavy, seems to balance the brass and strings well. The concerto, completed much later in the late '40s, is one of Hindemith's most lyrical works and contains some nice moments. A mixed bag overall, though: fans of Mathis might do well to try Wolfgang Sawallisch's 1994 EMI recording.

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