COMPLETE WORKS FOR VIOLIN & PIANO / HINDEMITH: Violin Sonatas, Op. 11 Nos. 1 & 2. Sonata for Violin d’Amore & Piano, “Kleine Sonate.” Violin Sonata in E (1935). Trauermusik. Meditation from the Ballet “Noblissima Visione.” Violin Sonata in C (1939) / Roman Mints, vln; Alexander Kobrin, pno / Quartz QTZ 2132
Hindemith’s music for violin and piano was intermittently written over a period of 21 years, and none but the first two sonatas were numbered works, yet the full oeuvre remains a vital and interesting body of work. Roman Mints, by his own admission “wasn’t really meant to become a violinist…None of my family played, except a self-taught great-uncle, who I never knew. When my mother’s friend, our neighbor, took her son to enroll in music school, my mother asked if she would take me along: maybe they’d let me join too,” yet he surely is a very fine player in the modern sense, i.e., a bright, strong tone and clean, no-nonsense phrasing. Pianist Alexander Kobrin is also a very good musician, sometimes compared to the late Van Cliburn, and together they give us strong performances—though, at times, leaning too much in the direction of “straight tone,” which occasionally drains the music of its expressive power in slow sections.
Thus one will listen in vain throughout the first sonata for rich tone and expressive qualities of David Oistrakh, who played this sonata during his heyday. Why Mints found it necessary or even appropriate to use straight tone in 20th-century works is utterly beyond my understanding, but there it is: dry, lusterless, and lacking body in the slow movements, albeit brisk and energetic in the fast movements. And yet, in the liner notes, Mints says that the thing that caught him up with Hindemith was his “romanticism,” the “exaggerated emotions, the endless German directions like Schumann’s.” Go figure.
I liked all of the fast movements because both Mints and Kobrin give their all, but if you go back and listen to the historical 1920s recordings of Hindemith’s own Amar String Trio and Quartet playing his own works (as well as Beethoven), you will hear a very fast, light vibrato used on all sustained tones. This is what the composer wanted in his music, and this is what he (on viola) and his fellow-musicians delivered.
Occasionally Mints does play with a fast, light vibrato, however, as in the slow movement of the Op. 11 No. 2 sonata, and this enriches his sound a bit, so apparently it’s not a constant with him. He also brings his very energetic approach to bear on the later works as well as the early ones, and by the time of the 1922 Sonata for Violin d’Amore & Piano we begin to hear a very different Hindemith from those first two numbered sonatas—even, or perhaps especially, in the slow movements which have become more harmonically modern and rich in texture. I would even go so far as to say that the slow movement of this sonata is deeper music than the slow sections of the earlier works, and here again Mints seems to vacillate between straight tone and the kind of light vibrato that Hindemith preferred, which is all to the good. Yet he returns to straight tone in the beginning of the third movement of this sonata and the first movement of the Sonata in E, for what reason only Mints knows.
And yet there is that constant undercurrent of vitality and energy that drives these performances, and comparing Mints to a number of other modern violinists who have recorded these sonatas, among them Doris Wolff-Malm, Ulf Wallin, Eliot Lawson, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Ulf Hoelscher, everyone else sounds pale by comparison, mostly due to the lack of emotional involvement of their pianists but partly due to the violinists’ inability or unwillingness to play this music with strong emotion. Thus I found myself in a quandary, disliking portions of these performances but generally approving of their approach, and make no mistake, Kobrin’s playing is a major factor in this. Thank God you can’t play straight-tone piano!
Mints returns to playing with vibrato in the lovely Meditation with good results, and both he and Kobrin are absolutely explosive in the late (1939) C Major sonata that follows. It’s a somewhat strange set, then; primarily very good, but with several annoying straight-toned passages that just don’t seem to fit in.
I might hold off adding these sonatas to my collection until I find a better recording, but whose? None that I’ve heard are any good, and this one, at least, has plenty of energy.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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