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ClassicsOnline Home » Cello Recital: Hurtaud, Sébastien: HINDEMITH, P.
Hindemith’s music for cello closely follows his evolution as a composer. With elements which look back to Schumann, Three Pieces, Op 8 is among his earliest published works, while the solo Sonata, Op 25 is indebted to Bach’s Cello Suites and is one of the most intense and demanding of his chamber works. The ingenious variations on A frog he went a-courting are lighter in nature, contrasting with the weighty depths of the Sonata for Cello and Piano. Sébastien Hurtaud was first prize winner at the Adam International Cello Competition in 2009.
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
Music for Cello
Born in Hanau on 16 November 1895, Paul Hindemith studied the violin privately before admittance to the Hoch Conservatory at the age of thirteen. By 1915 he was playing second violin in his teacher Adolf Rebner’s quartet and became leader of the opera orchestra in the same year. After the First World War he started to make his name as a composer of keen originality while striving, throughout the 1920s, to bring about a reappraisal of the rôle of classical music with his concept of Gebrauchsmusik (Functional Music) and devoting much energy to the promotion of new music, in particular at the Donaueschingen Festival. Having turned to the viola, he formed the Amar-Hindemith Quartet in 1921, the ensemble, for which he was to write three of his seven string quartets and which soon won considerable acclaim for its performances.
In 1927 Hindemith was appointed professor of composition at the Berlin Musikhochschule, two years later disbanding the quartet. In 1932 Wilhelm Furtwängler commissioned his Philharmonic Concerto to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and two years later gave the première of the Mathis der Maler Symphony. The National Socialist Party subsequently condemned Hindemith’s music, however, and his position became untenable. In 1935 he was given leave from his position at Berlin’s Musikhochschule, visiting America and spending time in Turkey. He finally resigned his post in Berlin, moving first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where he was appointed professor of theory at Yale and became an American citizen in 1946. An appointment at the University of Zürich saw his return to Europe in 1953 and he settled in Switzerland, though his sudden death took place in Frankfurt, the city of his early music career, on 28 December 1963.
Although he was not primarily active as a chamber musician after 1927, Hindemith went on to enjoy real success as a solo violist—most notably when he gave the world première of Walton’s Viola Concerto (earlier rejected by Lionel Tertis as being unplayable) in 1929, though his later years saw him focus his energies mainly on conducting. Chamber music had long played a central rôle in his output, of which his music for cello can be seen as defining the essential developments of his evolution as a composer. Among his earliest published works is the Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, written during 1914–16 and first heard in Frankfurt on 12 March 1917 with the cellist Maurits Frank and pianist Willy Renner. Despite their unequal length and balance, these pieces comprise a cohesive whole and not least because of their thematic interrelation.
The first piece, Capriccio, begins with great gusto—the lively main theme given to the cello with a hardly less animated piano accompaniment. A central episode proves more thoughtful and introspective, though the initial vitality is quickly restored and the music heads to a nonchalant close. The second piece, Phantasiestücke, commences with a long-breathed theme that has, as its title might suggest, a certain indebtedness to Schumann. The writing for cello and piano evinces no mean textural and harmonic density, and though the music eventually opens out into a more restrained central section that also pursues a more speculative expression, this proves to be little more than a foil to the main theme, which soon resumes its course towards an eloquent climax before gently ebbing away at the close. The third piece, Scherzo, proves an equally substantial piece, starting with a robustly humorous theme which has more than a hint of waltz inflection. This winds down to a brief pause, whereupon an expressive new theme emerges that looks back in mood to the previous piece, yet here the instrumental texture is appreciably less highly wrought. It gradually dies down to near silence, only to resume its expressive course before being suddenly swept aside by a return of the first theme, now drawing on aspects of both main themes as it heads on its animated course towards a conclusion which seems the more equivocal in context.
Lighter fare is provided by A frog he went a-courting, written in 1941 and given its première in June 1944 by the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Subtitled Variations on an Old English Nursery Song, this is among the most immediately appealing of all Hindemith’s chamber works, not least for the way that the ingenuous theme is put through its paces over the course of thirteen very brief variations. The treatment of the well-known song is brief and to the point, while the variations that follow are variously lively, wistful, impetuous, urbane, inquisitive, resolute and rhetorical in their differing elaboration of the theme, which returns almost apologetically at the close of the variation sequence for a terse though highly fitting coda.
Maurits Frank gave the première of the Sonata for Solo Cello, dedicated to him and written during July and August 1922. It was first heard in Freiburg on 6 May the following year. This is among the most demanding (whether for the performer or the listener) of Hindemith’s chamber works, for all that its indebtedness to the Cello Suites of Bach is never in doubt. The opening movement makes for a tense and even aggressive prelude, focussing on some highly intense and demanding passagework. There follows an intermezzo whose expressive restraint and lilting rhythm manage to evince a degree of humour, then by a slow movement which forms the centrepiece of the work in every respect, its high-flown eloquence and questing culmination setting the music on an altogether more elevated plane. After this the briefest of scherzos provides a chattering and almost inane interlude, such that the finale, with its stabbing accents and general air of sardonic humour, makes for a curt conclusion to a work which takes no hostages in its evoking of Baroque precedent.
The Sonata for Cello and Piano was written to a request from Gregor Piatigorsky in August 1948, and given its première by him in New York on 15 November the following year. There are the customary three movements, though the lay-out and balance between them is by no means conventional, confirming the mature Hindemith as no slavish adherent of tradition. The first movement is distinguished by its overtly restrained character, its twin themes alternating in an almost impassive manner which is yet given focus by the precisely judged interplay of cello and piano. A central section is more forcefully contrapuntal, taking the music through to an initially heightened restatement of the main material which soon resumes its initial restraint as it heads towards a thoughtful pause, the mood suddenly ruffled by the piano’s recollection of earlier activity. The second movement is an astute hybrid of intermezzo and scherzo, its trenchant opening idea being followed by a more limpid theme whose continuation is largely entrusted to the piano with thoughtful interjections from the cello. At length the piano seizes the initiative in its return to the earlier activity, with both themes fleetingly recalled before the pensive ending. The third movement opens with a brief gesture from cello, then a much longer and more substantial reply from piano, thereby setting in motion a finale which unfolds as an intensive but by no means strict passacaglia that also brings with it the most forceful and involving music of the whole work. Not that the more inward qualities are absent, as when the piano leads into a musing dialogue with the cello towards mid-point, though this is curtailed by forceful music that soon presages a fugal interplay between the instruments, which heads with unflagging energy to a determined close.
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Cello Recital: Hurtaud, Sébastien: HINDEMITH, P.