The hardest thing for any piece of contemporary music is securing the second
performance. If this is true in the concert hall it is doubly so in the theatre. With all the extra demands and costs of opera or ballet and the need to sustain a sequence of performances, the history of music is littered with great ballet scores that are all but forgotten in their original danced form.
This is where Paul Hindemith showed some considerable wisdom, adapting his 1936 ballet score based on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi - choreography by Léonide Massine - for the concert hall. The resulting - relatively familiar - work is not
a ballet suite in the sense that Stravinsky's various selections from The Firebird
is. Instead it became a concert work based on music from the ballet. As such it remains one of Hindemith's most impressive works but along the way some twenty-five minutes of the original ballet score were lost. In addition, the concert work orders the music quite differently from the original and with no regard to the narrative. All of which makes this new recording from Seattle doubly welcome. Even if it is not the 'first complete recording' the cover claims, it is a significant rarity and one that all admirers of Hindemith's art will want to hear.
Gerard Schwarz and his nimble Seattle players are energetic and skilled guides. My one major reservation is the quality of the audio especially in the main ballet. The engineering and production is credited to Dmitriy Lipay who, with a little web searching, is listed as the 'Audio Manager' of the Seattle Symphony. For many years it was Delos who used this orchestra and their preferred recording style - warm, slightly distant but natural, was the antithesis of Lipay's. He prefers a very close and detailed recording which I personally find rather unappealing - not 'bad' but not as sophisticated as many. Certainly the brass instruments are very forwardly balanced with the horns particularly audible. The calibre of the playing means it can stand this degree of scrutiny but it does not make for an aurally seductive experience. Comparing say Blomstedt in San Francisco on Decca or Tortelier with the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos both of those recordings from a technical perspective, the latter especially are far preferable. Yet, listening to the opening of the work in any
of those 'compressed' versions and the loss of the music present in the complete score is significant. The Suite's opening Einleitung und Rondo
is drawn substantially not from the ballet's Introduction but from the Meditation
. In Schwarz's complete score the sonorous string writing is prefaced by a beautiful - and beautifully played - bassoon elegy. Indeed time and again the complete score struck me with the fluent skill with which the eleven sections - as tracked on the Naxos disc - flow together both musically and as a narrative in a most satisfying way.
The individual excellence of the playing of the Seattle Symphony is nowhere better exemplified than in another passage excised in the suite. This is the ninth section - Violin Playing/The Wolf -
which features a spectacular trombone solo played with gleeful brilliance by Ko-ichiro Yamamoto. This is very typical Hindemith, by no means the dry academic that some would say he is but conversely not in the least sentimental - the pleasure is generated through the joy of action and intellectual engagement. As such this is a valuable addition to the core Hindemith discography even allowing for the less than demonstration sonics.
The recording of the filler, the Five Pieces for String Orchestra,
even though made at exactly the same time at the end of the ballet sessions, is considerably better. By only focusing on the strings Lipay manages to give them a better balance without the highlighting that mars the main work. Emma McGrath's violin solos are beautifully played. This is an interesting work but one that has always left me relatively cold. My comparative version here is the performance that turned up as part of CPO's extended survey of Hindemith's work conducted by Werner Andreas Albert with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Albert is lighter, more fluent, but Schwarz is altogether weightier and more searching. Both interpretations work well and in fact complement each other with such differing approaches.
Paul Conway's brief liner-note in English and German only is a useful guide to the genesis and narrative of the main work. Overall, an interesting addition to the Hindemith discography - now to see the ballet danced.
reviews: Leslie Wright & Rob Barnett