The Naxos blurb for this new release describes Hindemith's seven
String Quartets as "one of the twentieth century's greatest
cycles". It’s an appraisal hardly gainsaid by the first
volume in the Amar Quartet's new cycle for Naxos, released in
summer 2012 to considerable acclaim (review).
Yet for reasons to do with his complicated, portentous and perhaps
not always cohesive theoretical writings on music and society,
and his strong dislike of the 1950s avant-garde, Hindemith's
music has not always had an easy time of it from critics. Historically,
string quartets have been as guilty as any in neglecting his
music, with the exception to an extent of the Fourth Quartet.
Things are changing nowadays as a growing discography reveals
the true extent of the music’s accessibility and intelligence.
The String Quartets count among his most instantly approachable
works, even the Third, with which he firmed up his credentials
among contemporaries as a modernist. Like the two Quartets in
volume I, the opening Fifth, written around the same time, follows
in the great tradition of Beethoven. Though chromaticism is
very marked and tonality itself sometimes has only the loosest
of grips, German musicologist Giselher Schubert goes as far
as to say, in his booklet notes, that the elaborate double fugue
of the first movement "at its best can complement Beethoven's
Grosse Fuge, op.133" - a far from overstated assessment. Fittingly,
Hindemith wrote this work whilst on tour with the original Amar
Quartet, who then gave an immediate first performance in Vienna
Hindemith wrote his last two Quartets, both in E flat, twenty
years later in America, towards the end of the Second World
War. The music is no less friendly. The Sixth in fact looks
back on and borrows material from Hindemith's own Second, Third
and Fourth Quartets, dating back to the 1910s and 1920s. Hindemith's
part-writing throughout is unremittingly inventive, almost breathtaking
in its scope and intricacy. Yet for all the sophistication,
there is always clarity and concision of thought, and a regard
for tradition-nurtured audiences.
The Zurich-based Amar Quartet, named by way of tribute after
Hindemith's own ensemble (dissolved in 1929), give another memorable
reading, urbane and high-fidelity, cordial and eloquent. First
violinist Anna Brunner co-founded the quartet in 1987 with her
sister, yet she is still only forty.
These recordings were made at exactly the same time as volume
1, so it is no surprise that the audio has the same high-quality
feel. The notes are much as before, Schubert giving a well written,
detailed account of the music, notwithstanding an opening sentence
that ignores the facts: "Paul Hindemith was the first composer
of string quartets since Spohr (1784-1859) who was also an outstanding
violinist and viola player" - Respighi, Ysaÿe and Lalo,
among others, had evidently slipped his mind.
There is, presumably, one more volume to come, with the 'new'
First and Hindemith's most popular Fourth Quartet. The First
was not published until 1994, and its discovery in recent times
necessitated the re-numbering of all the rest. It would be nice
too if the Amar and Naxos could squeeze on Hindemith's two extant,
quasi-Dadaist parody pieces for quartet, both written in the
early 1920s. The Overture to the Flying Dutchman, as Played
at Sight by a Bad Spa Orchestra at the Fountain at 7a.m.,
is only about eight minutes long, and room could be found for
at least a couple of the movements of the so-called Minimax
(Repertory for Military Orchestra). Hindemith the humourist!
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