Janowski Livens Up Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Noblissima Visione. Concert Music for Strings and Brass (“Boston Symphony”) / WDR Symphony Orchestra; Marek Janowski, cond / Pentatone PTC5186672

It wouldn’t be quite correct to say that Marek Janowski is an overlooked or neglected conductor, but he is surely greater than his overall profile within the classical world would suggest. One of the reasons why he is sometimes neglected is that, many years ago, he decided that he would never again conduct opera in live performance because he was—like myself—utterly disgusted and repulsed by what we are pleased to call “Regietheater.” Yet his Pentatone recordings of Wagner’s operas have, despite some iffy cast choices, received high marks from critics because of his superb conducting skills. Thus I was particularly interested in hearing his take on these Hindemith works.

Interestingly, each of the works on this CD present Hindemith in his most congenial and populist vein. The Concert Music for Strings and Brass, written in 1931, was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony, then celebrating its 50th anniversary; Noblissima Visione was commissioned by Leonide Massine in 1937 for a ballet based on, of all things, St. Francis of Assisi. The Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber began as a Massine commission in 1940, failed to gel as a ballet, and ended up being a concert piece finished in 1944, based on, as Hindemith put it, “natty pieces for piano duet.” It ended up being one of his most popular works, almost sounding like the then-modern American classical music of Walter Piston, Paul Creston and even Aaron Copland.

Many years ago, in the latter days of his long career, Eugene Ormandy startled the musical world with a very good recording of the Symphonic Metamorphosis with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Janowski does him one better. His performance is more clearly etched, with outstanding orchestral detail and great drive and “lift” to the score. He also seems to revel more in Hindemith’s unusual harmonies: though the piece was based on Weber’s melodic line the underlying chords were not. In the third section, marked “Andantino,” Janowski really moves the music well despite the slower pace, and in the last movement the buzz of the bassoon underlying the winds is startlingly clear. The whole performance almost has the kind of drive and energy one associated with the late George Szell, but in comparing Janowski’s recording to Szell’s I still prefer this one. It’s less stiff and has far greater sound.

By contrast, the music of Noblissima Visione is warm and rich, with softer orchestral colors and a more lyrical profile. In this work, too, Hindemith moves the harmony with the melodic line so that the two are organically connected. Each piece in this suite thus has its own specific feel and flow, the first (“Introduction and Rondo”) having an almost pastoral feel to it. In the second, “March and Pastorale,” Hindemith wrote a rather relaxed and jolly tune for the opening, which makes it seem an odd choice to represent the soldiers who purportedly attacked and wounded the young St. Francis, torturing him brutally. I really expected something closer to the kind of march that opens the Mahler Sixth Symphony. This one has a peppy double-time coda before the music slows down for the “Pastorale,” which actually sounds more unsettled and edgy tonally than the opening piece. The final “Passacaglia” moves at a nice medium-brisk pace; this represented St. Francis’ “canticle of the sun,” and contains 21 variations on a six-bar theme, ending with a tightly-written coda that crescendos to a blaze of glory.

We end with the earliest piece composed of those here, the Concert Music for Strings and Brass. Personally, I have a hard time conceiving Koussevitzky, who was a pretty mediocre musician, conducting something this rhythmically modern and complex without messing it up (his recording of the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, which he also commissioned, is a real mess). Hindemith’s tight pacing, which incorporates many neoclassical rhythms, unsettled tonality and interesting counter-figures played by the high strings against the lower, would surely have taxed Koussevitzky beyond his pay grade. To be honest, I also have a hard time envisioning the typical Boston Symphony audience of 1931 sitting through this. Philadelphia, maybe; Stokowski conducted a lot of modern music there; but certainly not ultra-conservative Boston.

Still, the music is excellent. Hindemith was able to avoid the trap of writing “celebratory” music that ended up being pompous or conceded too much to popular tastes. There are many highly creative moments in this score and its two long sections (nine and eight minutes, respectively) really jell into something quite meaty. Oddly, the music ends on a sort of Gershwin-like blues lick. Again Janowski finds a way of playing the music in as brisk a tempo as possible without ignoring the salient details in the score. In way, his conducting reminds me more of Czech conductors than Polish ones; there’s a high degree of similarity between this disc and the one of Karel Ančerl conducting Josef Suk’s Asrael, which I reviewed last month. Janowski captures the mood of the music as well as its textural profile, combining these elements here as deftly as he has done in Wagner.

These are clearly among the finest readings of these scores extant. A great disc!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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