Hindemith Viola Sonatas

Author: 
James Methuen-Campbell

Hindemith Viola Sonatas

  • Sonata for Viola
  • Sonata for Viola
  • Sonata for Viola
  • Sonata for Viola
  • Sonata for Viola and Piano
  • Sonata for Viola and Piano
  • Sonata for Viola and Piano

The seven works recorded here leave one in no doubt that Hindemith was the composer for the viola, the instrument which he himself played supremely well (indeed, he was recorded in the Op. 25 No. 1 Solo Sonata and the 1939 Sonata with piano). Throughout these works, even in Op. 31 No. 4 and the 1937 Sonata, which are unpublished, there is an almost overwhelming competence. The sheer mastery with which he was able to go about making one instrument express the creativity of his extraordinarily fertile mind is quite breathtaking. But this is not easy music, and much is demanded of the listener. There is a strong feeling that it emanates from an era of unrest: the constant moving-on from one idea to another and the rapid harmonic shifts are symptomatic of this. The role of the viola is somewhat solitary.
Alfred Einstein encapsulated Hindemith's relationship to his audience thus: ''He is unwilling to exploit his feelings publicly and he keeps his two feet on the ground. He merely writes music, the best that he can produce.'' And yet it is in the four sonatas for solo viola that one is closest to his essence, an essence that is rather bleak and certainly highly cerebral. He was 24 when he wrote the 1919 Sonata, Op. 11 No. 5 and it was in this year that he had given up the violin in favour of the viola. Although the style is fragmented, the four movements are linked by a recurring motif. The Op. 25 No. 1 unpublished work of three years later contains further indications that Hindemith was aiming to convey some philosophical import in his music, and this personal aspect is heightened by the very intensely expressive tone that Kashkashian uses in the final section, with her bow close to the bridge.
Hindemith's allegiance to Bach is clearer in the next two solo sonatas, both regarding instrumental technique and use of polyphony. Despite this, there is a hint of the flamenco style in the first movement of Op. 31 No. 4, and the eerie loneliness of the Lied would make an ideal soundtrack for a ghost story. The 1937 Sonata was written on a train journey between New York and Chicago and was apparently performed a few days later. Here the music is rather more direct. The first two movements are neo-classical in orientation and the whole sonata makes its effect through the contrasts in light and shade.
The presence of the piano in the remaining three sonatas allows the listener to hear the viola in a less aurally taxing context. One feels that Hindemith is showing a public face and certainly the Op. 11 No. 4 work is more romantic in inspiration than was the solo sonata of the same year. The florid writing of the Phantasie first movement of the former, with the rapid runs, trills and arabesques, is infinitely more approachable. The rest of the work is taken up with variations, though Hindemith's complex treatment does not mean that there is a lightening of mood.
The writing for the piano is very much complementary to that of the viola, and at times it is the piano with its greater power that is given the most angular and thrusting writing. The almost Bartok-like insistent rhythms of the finale from the Op. 25 No. 4 Sonata demonstrate this. In the last work for viola, the Sonata of 1939, Hindemith shows some softening with age, though he was still only 44 when it was written. The open-air freshness of the second movement and the more melodic style in the Phantasia third make this an easier piece and throughout the piano is given its fair share of colouristic effects.
This is a superbly played set. Kim Kashkashian has a really mellow-sounding viola, completely free from that nasal quality that is so often associated with it. She manages the terribly taxing demands with confidence and her interpretations have wonderful authority. The recorded sound captures the viola tone excellently, and there is no harshness. Of the six LP sides of the music it should be noted that three are less than 20 minutes long, but I cannot see how the music could have been otherwise distributed with success. The release fits more comfortably on the two CDs. This is a remarkably fine set, though the music demands a certain toughness from the listener.'

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