Walker Delves Into Hindemith & Hartmann

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HINDEMITH: Ludus Tonalis. HARTMANN: Piano Sonata, “27 April 1945” / Esther Walker, pno / FHR 54

Pianist Esther Walker here plays two major works by two composers, one internationally famous and the other (Karl Amadeus Hartmann) only well-known to academics and musicians. Yet both works are fascinating and well-written, though Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis or Tonal Games is clearly the meatier and more densely structured of the two.

A contrast in the abilities and potentials between the precise and highly productive Paul Hindemith and the amorphous, vastly overrated musical “philosophy” of Theodor Adorno: When Hindemith came to America, he carved out a fine career for himself as a Professor of Music at Yale, not only writing a work such as this and in teaching, but also in musicology. He took several years off from his own work as a composer to research the true performance style of the early 17th century (as opposed to today’s false “historically-informed” nonsense) to produce a working arrangement of the seminal operatic work of all time, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which he then conducted and presented in the early 1950s. Adorno, hired by Columbia University, was asked to come up with a workable philosophy of music that could be taught. He came up with nothing more than his own nasty polemics against non-German conductors performing German music and his lifelong snotty comments about jazz, Arturo Toscanini and even actors in great plays. In short, Adorno was a non-productive intellectual snob whereas Hindemith was a true intellectual who enjoyed interacting with other musicians and students, and was highly productive.

Ludus Tonalis (which, incidentally, was also the name of a used classical record shop in New York’s Greenwich Village during the 1960s and ‘70s) used the 12 tones of the chromatic scale as the springboard for using each of them as a keynote to bring the others into tonal accord. As explained in the liner notes:

Not the least innovative aspect of Ludus Tonalis is its structural follow-through. The work consists of 25 movements: 12 fugues interspersed with 11 interludes, the sequence framed by a prelude and postlude themselves evincing formal and expressive symmetry. The long-term evolution of this sequence is from the ‘C’ keynote of the first fugue to the ‘F sharp’ of the twelfth, with the interludes modulating not between keys but between the keynotes of those fugues on either side; a long-term process adumbrated in the prelude then consolidated in the postlude.

And Hindemith did not stop with verbal description. Here is an image created by Hindemith to show the sequence of notes from Series 1 in his book The Craft of Musical Composition as used in Ludas Tonalis:

Hindemith graph

Interestingly—or ironically, in the case of Adorno’s dismissal of jazz musicians—this graph occasionally confuses classical musicians, who think mostly in terms of what is on the page written by the composer, but not by jazz musicians who always think in terms of tonal relationships and chromatic movement.

Hindemith structured his work as a Prelude followed by 23 fugues and interludes, concluding with a Postlude. Despite the complexity of the work, it is relatively easy to follow, particularly if you’ve studied jazz, and not as indigestible to the casual listener as the description above might indicate. Despite his use of some advanced harmony and unusual (for classical music) chord positions, it is one of his more melodic works, and pianist Esther Walker plays it with warmth of tone and lyrical distinction. In her hands, it becomes much more than an exercise; it is living, breathing music, interesting and attractive at the same time. In the brisker fugues, Walker plays with energy and enthusiasm. The “Scherzando” interlude is also played with a deft touch and a nicely bouncing rhythm. The result is a performance of both fascinating construction (the third fugue almost sounds like a modern version of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue) and a strong desire to make the score appealing to the average listener. In this she succeeds brilliantly.

Hartmann’s piano sonata, which occupies a similar sound and texture as the Hindemith piece, was withheld from publication by the composer and so did not have its premier until 1982, some 21 years after his death. Despite its tonal similarity to Hindemith’s work, it is altogether a more somber work, its longer movements allowing for greater development. This somber quality makes sense if one explores the subtitle, “27 April 1945,” a date on which Hartmann witnessed “an endless stream of Dachau prisoners of war trudge past us…unending was the misery…unending was the sorrow.”  Since it lacks the immediate appeal of Ludus Tonalis, marking it as a “musician’s piece” and not one that would gain public endearment or easy acceptance. Walker makes what she can of it, however, imbuing its stern structure with as much warmth and feeling as she can muster. I liked it very much.

This is a great CD that you need to hear if you enjoy modern music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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