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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Ludus Tonalis
Käbi Laretei (piano)
rec. 19-20 October 1965, Fine Recording Studio A, New York
ELOQUENCE 484 0142 [54:04]

In the years just before and during the Second World War, Hindemith worked on a comprehensive treatise in three volumes with the title The Craft of Musical Composition. This sets out his theoretical scheme. Having done this, he proceeded to exemplify it through a comprehensive piano work, modelled on Bach’s Well-Tempered Keyboard, featuring twelve fugues, one for each note of the chromatic scale, separated by interludes and with an opening Praeludium and closing Postludium. These display all sorts of contrapuntal devices, and, as a particular flourish, the Postludium is the retrograde inversion of the Praeludium. This is his most important piano work. The title can be roughly translated as The Play of Notes. (Incidentally, at more or less the same time, his younger contemporary Olivier Messiaen also wrote a treatise on his musical language and also exemplified it in a massive piano work, the Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus.)

There have been several recordings of it, but they tend not to stay in the catalogue for long, because the work, though popular with those pianists who can play it, has never really endeared itself to the wider public. It is, as one might expect from this background, serious, demanding and technically difficult, with wide stretches, unusual chords and tricky fast passages but also very varied, often playful and light-hearted, with a much wider emotional range than one might expect from a work with such obviously didactic aims. Part of the problem is that the way the score is written is very severe, with little indication of interpretation.

At this point, I can introduce Käbi Laretei. She was Estonian by birth and had a difficult upbringing which included fleeing from the Russians to Sweden, where she was for a time married to the film maker Ingmar Bergman. She had a successful career but made few recordings, of which this one is the most celebrated. This is because Hindemith personally coached her for her concert performances of the work in New York, though he did not live to hear the performances themselves. I don’t myself believe that there are such things as definitive recordings, but this one is certainly authoritative. Her understanding of issues such as tempo, pedalling – usually very light – phrasing, touch and volume can be taken as representing the composer’s wishes.

What I have noticed again and again in listening to this disc is her lightness of touch. Hindemith’s awkward writing for the piano tempts some players into taking altogether too forceful an approach. She also plays with a good deal of wit, for example in the first Interlude or the toccata-like fourth Interlude. She can swing the rhythm when required, for example in Fugue 5. She can be sinuous and exploratory, as in Fugue 7, or heavy and lumbering as in the immediately following Interlude.

In listening to her, I also noticed that she was aware of Hindemith’s affinities with earlier composers and brought them out when this was appropriate. The opening Praeludium, for example, owes a good deal to the opening of Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, another massive example of twentieth century contrapuntal mastery. Otherwise, these echoes are most evident in the Interludes. Interludes 8 and 9 owe something to two of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as does Interlude 10 to the fugue in Beethoven’s Diabelli set. Later composers are also sometimes evoked, such as Ravel – the Rigaudon from Le Tombeau de Couperin – in Interlude 3, and Prokofiev’s way of poking fun at pomposity in Interlude 6. In contrast, the fugues themselves tend to be more inward-looking and are often very quiet. The rumbustious Fugue 4 is an exception, although this has a Schumannesque middle section.

Laretei’s virtuosity is equal to almost all of Hindemith’s demands. The slight exception is that she sometimes has to break his extreme stretches. Her playing is exceptionally clear, and she lays out the fugues, with all their complicated contrapuntal devices, bringing out the subject when required, but not all the time or in an obtrusive way.

The recording dates from 1965 but is perfectly acceptable. The sleevenote, in English only, is very helpful on the work and also tells us more about Laretei. The original vinyl of this on the Philips label acquired a legendary reputation among Hindemith lovers and this is its first issue on CD. Of course, there are other recordings worth considering, such as McCabe (Hyperion), who offers a composer’s insight, and the freer one by Berezovsky (Warner), but this deserves its reputation and enthusiasts should snap it up.

Stephen Barber

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