Paul Hindemith: Klaviermusik mit Orchester, Op. 29
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”
Leon Fleischer (piano), Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)
Recorded live in Philadelphia, Verizon Hall (April 27, 2008) – 64’18
Ondine ODE 1141-2 – Booklet in English and German
This disc will be of primary interest to Hindemith lovers, as it includes the world premiere recording of the composer’s fabled work written for one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. The manuscript of the work was discovered in 2002 at Wittgenstein’s widow’s estate in Pennsylvania and, after apparently minor proofreading, was premiered by Fleischer in Berlin in 2004, some 81 years after its completion.
The work was written at the same time as Hindemith’s song cycle Das Marienleben and precedes the group of works entitled Kammermusik by a few years. As the liner notes indicate, this was when Hindemith was steadfastly interested in composing Gebrauchsmusik, expressing: “The times of composing for its own sake are over, perhaps forever.”
The piece falls into four sections, played continuously. In general, one might be disappointed when comparing this work to the brilliantly imaginative solutions devised by other composers (notably Ravel, Korngold and Prokofiev) in overcoming what might seem a “limitation” in only having one hand available to play complex textures. Hindemith, on the other hand, seems to have accepted the limitation. There are very few passages that create the illusion of more than one hand playing and overall Hindemith’s dense contrapuntal textures are somewhat sheered down. The piece is mostly leanly orchestrated with the solo pianist offering mostly single-line melodic material sometimes doubled at the octave.
The central two sections of the piece are the most successful and interesting. After a somewhat dolorous introductory section, Hindemith unleashes a scherzo with imaginative percussion writing, jazz-influenced rhythmic interplay and unpredictable phrasing that engage the listener. Here one is reminded of the Kammermusik No. 2, although this is a somewhat tamer version than that explosive work. This subsides into the slow third section, “Trio”, with an extended English horn solo in dialogue with the pianist.
While the music may not be top-notch Hindemith, the performances are beyond reproach. Fleischer is particularly impressive in the simple but effective opening of the third movement. In the outer sections, Hindemith’s orchestration is facile, with a heavy reliance on octave doubling in the brass and strings. The Curtis students play impressively. There is a suitable rawness to some of the brass playing, solid string playing in some tricky-sounding quick chromatic passages, and the aforementioned English horn solo in the third section is impressively performed. Balance between soloist and orchestra is ideal.
Overall, the piece doesn’t overwhelm or contain the imaginative touches that inhabit Hindemith’s best concertante piano work, Die vier Temperamente, and those looking for a major addition to the composer’s oeuvre might be slightly disappointed. That said, for both Fleischer and Hindemith completists, the purchase is a no brainer.
Unfortunately, the CD’s accompanying New World reading offers no true competition to the copious excellent recordings currently available. Again, the Curtis orchestra certainly matches any professional orchestra in the world in terms of execution and maturity of sound, but their perfection and adherence to an overly-mannered interpretation from the podium is what hinders the recording from being a true front-runner. The two main problems are Eschenbach’s choice of slightly-too-slow tempos (especially in the first movement) and his didactic habit of making the score sound as if Dvorák had written tenutos over every note. One instance is the primary theme in the finale, thrillingly played by the horns and trumpets but drearily punctuated by the remainder of the orchestra. There is no punch or excitement in this initial presentation and this is characteristic of the performance as a whole. On subtler levels, Eschenbach infuses the performance with numerous unnecessary agogic accents, such as in the second theme of the first movement, which is fussily phrased and performed at a tempo far slower than the main tempo of the movement. Further, there is never a sense of long-term phrasing. In Dvorak’s many repeated and sequential passage, the dynamic level is invariably kept flat instead of increasing or decreasing and drawing the listener to the next change.
I revisited Eschenbach’s Houston Symphony recording of the work, and many of these mannerisms are missing. Likewise, when compared with other thrilling recordings of the work in the catalog (Paray, Szell, Bernstein, and even Ondine’s own recent recording from Ashkenazy and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra), the pervasive interpretive ticks that Eschenbach imbues on these young students lets the performance down in the end.