Hindemith’s String Quartets Played by Amar

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HINDEMITH: String Quartets Nos. 1-7 / Amar Quartet / Naxos 8503290

This boxed set is a re-release of recordings made by the Amar Quartet in 2009-11, formerly available on single Naxos discs, but its packaging as a complete set is welcome and gives those of us who missed them originally a chance to evaluate their work.

I admit not being familiar with all the Hindemith String Quartets prior to hearing this release; I only knew two of them from old 1920s recordings by Hindemith’s own original Amar Quartet, after which this modern group is named. Thus I found it a bit startling to hear the first quartet, resolutely tonal but not uninteresting, and realize that his original model seems not to have been Beethoven or Brahms but, rather, Smetana or Dvořák. There is a decided Czech or Hungarian sound to this quartet, particularly in the first movement with its unusual chord choices and melodic formation. In the second movement we hear intimations of the mature Hindemith to come in the close harmonies used in the lower strings (viola, playing in its lower range, and cello), but the overall feel of the music is still more Czech than German to my ears.

I don’t think this is superfluous or unimportant. On the contrary, I believe that Hindemith very consciously took an Eastern European musical aesthetic and brought it to a new, modern form of expression, which explains why his mature scores always seemed to have more in common with such composers as Janáček, Bartók or Ligeti than with the modern German school. Yet in the second quartet—also tonal, and in fact much more cheerful and sunny than the first quartet, the melody of the first movement somewhat resembling folk music—we hear unusual passages, like the soft one in the minor in the middle of the first movement, where the harmony and melody move parallel to each other, meaning that the harmony drives the melody. To a certain extent, this is what Ornette Coleman tried to do when he created his system of “harmolodics,” except that in his case the music was entirely divorced from tonality of any sort, the music drifting in whatever direction it chose from whatever starting point was decided on. This, too, was a factor in Hindemith’s mature style, although he used polytonality rather than non-tonality. The last movement of this quartet also resembles folk music, but in this case more Eastern European than German. And there’s a bit of a teaser: at 4:34, it sounds like the end of the movement, but after a fairly long pause the music resumes…and goes on for another 12 minutes! What I found odd about this was that there seemed to me little thematic relationship between these two sections, which makes me wonder if Hindemith originally conceived that first 4 ½ minutes as a separate “Scherzo” movement, to which the final 12 minutes were the concluding fourth. The one fly in the ointment here is that he also comes to a dead stop 8:25 into the movement, so this seems to have been a pattern he established when laying out the music.

With the third quartet, written in 1920, we reach the point where the music is recognizably Hindemith. Although the harmonies are fluid and modern, the music is still highly rhythmic and has a form that even untrained ears can follow. There also seems to be a quarrel breaking out in the first movement, with agitated, edgy violins screaming in protest against the grumbling, stubborn cello, which for the most part plays independently of the others here. The second movement is surely one of his most mysterious works, a rather disquieting piece in D minor in which the tonality shifts as the viola slithers chromatically through quiet, almost whimpering downward passages while the cello mourns dolefully and occasionally adds pizzicato commentary. The last movement is decidedly more chipper in mood, albeit no less agitated, and again that stubborn cello goes its own way at times.

The fourth quartet is one of those I have played by the original Amar Quartet. One immediate difference I noted at the very beginning is that the soft opening violin melody is played here with a slightly rough tone, whereas on the original 1920s recording it is played with a firmer center. Artistic interpretation? Possibly so. The original Amar Quartet also seemed to be somewhat cooler in sound, whereas the new one tends to exploit the pseudo-Slavic emotion of the music. This seems appropriate to me, but it is curious to hear this difference. The similarities include a clean, straightforward style with no portamento, no lingering and a very rapid vibrato to minimize any hint of Romanticism. The old recording technology may mask the fact that the original quartet played with as wide a variety of dynamics—that was always one way in which old recordings could falsify a performance—but in purely objective terms, the modern Amar Quartet seems to have stronger attacks and a wider dynamic range. One of the more interesting aspects of the fourth quartet is that it is in five movements, and each movement is far more compact and, in a sense, more dramatic because it says quite a lot in a shorter span of time. I made a comparison of this performance with the one that the Juilliard String Quartet recorded for Wergo, and found that the latter also played relatively cleanly but used portamento here and there while Amar did not. In addition, the Juilliard players seemed to take a much choppier approach to the music, making it sound more like Stravinsky. This is an interesting approach, but not, I think, altogether right for this music. I prefer the more legato flow of Amar’s performances, which seem to get more “inside” the music. If anything, the new Amar Quartet plays the third movement of this work with a more lyrical style than the original.

With the last three quartets, we reach fully mature Hindemith. There is now little or no relationship to the Romantic style, not even as much as in the Third or Fourth Quartets; all is Art Deco edginess, black and white forms juxtaposed to create the aural equivalent of Bauhaus architecture. The slow movements are still lyrical but not melodically attractive. The quartet also no longer adopts a contrasting style; no longer do upper strings play against the viola or the viola against the cello. The music is now a continuous four-way conversation, with occasional solos and one of the four instruments absent only for short stretches. The Amar Quartet emphasizes this difference with sharper attacks and an even leaner tone profile, yet there is still an emotional connection to the music. They have obviously thought this music through and arrived at a place where feeling and form meet and merge. The last-movement Passacaglia of the Fifth Quartet is particularly thorny, but the Amar Quartet digs in for as much emotion as they can get from it.

The Sixth Quartet opens with a slow movement, the initial melody played solo by the cello before the others join in. Again, there is little to connect this with Romanticism despite the warmth of the cello or the long lines being played. It is merely abstract music played more slowly, but in the hands of this talented quartet they do make it throb and swell by judicious use of dynamics. The cello also uses portamento, a device I would have thought would be banished from Hindemith’s music by this point, but it’s like the portamento that Emanuel Feuermann (one of Hindemith’s favorite musicians) often used, which was not very broad. There is only a brief luftpausen before they launch into the fast, almost savage-sounding second movement; one wonders if by this point, 20 years after the fifth quartet, Hindemith wasn’t taking out some of his anger at the Nazis through his music. A rhythmic motif of triplets followed by eighths dominates the proceedings; no matter where the melody or harmony goes, that rhythm is constant, almost brutally so. The third movement is a theme and variations quite angular in its Art Deco sort of way. It begins slowly but suddenly doubles in tempo around the three-minute mark, doubling yet again at six minutes. The fourth is marked “Bright and energetic,” and it is, dispelling the ferocity of the second movement and the abstract variations of the third.

The seventh and last quartet was written for himself to play in a domestic setting with students at Yale University, thus it is possibly the most personal of the set. It is even more abstract and angular than the sixth, and for once all the movement titles are written in English: “Fast,” “Quiet: Scherzando,” “Slow” and “Canon: Moderately fast – gay.” It’s also his shortest quartet, clocking in at only 16+ minutes. The music is, by and large, much lighter in character, almost chipper compared to the previous two quartets (even the slow movement has a chipper, fast-moving section), although still in his mature style. The Amar Quartet plays it with evident love and tenderness, enjoying its unusual contours.

All in all, this is an outstanding traversal of the Hindemith quartets by a group that has obviously put a lot of thought and hard work into their conceptions of them, and the bargain price is another plus for this set.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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