Revisiting Hindemith’s Brass Music

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HINDEMITH: Horn Sonata in F / Gail Williams, Fr-hn / Bass Tuba Sonata / Gene Pokorny, tuba / Trumpet Sonata / Raymond Mase, tpt / Alto Horn Sonata / Larry Strieby, a-hn / Trombone Sonata / Mark Lawrence, tb. All selections: Theodor Lichtmann, pno / Sonata for 4 Horns / Arthur David Kriebel, Thomas Bacon, Gail Williams, Lawrence Strieby, Fr-hn / Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass & 2 Harps / Summit Brass Ens.; Patrice Jenks, Mary Walter, harps; Lichtmann, pno; Carl Topilow, cond / Plöner Musiktag: Morgenmusik / Summit Brass; Topilow, cond / Summit 115

You know, sometimes recordings that you thought back in the old days were the best you’d probably ever hear turned out to be so, but then again, many don’t. This was the case, for me, when revisiting Glenn Gould’s album of Hindemith’s brass sonatas with soloists from the Philadelphia Orchestra. As usual, Gould played in a lively manner with crisp phrasing, but to my ears something just sounded wrong. The brass soloists all sounded as if they were sleep-walking through their parts, particularly horn player Mason Jones.

Fast-forward to 1995, and here we have another oldie (after all, this was 23 years ago) featuring the Summit Brass, whose individual members were all good musicians but lacked famous names, to which the still-lesser-known pianist Theodor Lichtmann was added, and voila! We have a soufflé that rises!

Their performance of the horn sonata, probably the most famous piece in this set, is lively and energetic, a far cry from not only Mason Jones on the Gould set but also the legendary Dennis Brain’s performance. Gail Williams give it some much-needed oomph, as does pianist Lichtmann. Happily, the enthusiasm continues with what can only be termed a jolly performance of the tuba sonata by Gene Pokorny—and not just the opening movement, but the whole thing, even the “Variations” that move at a slower clip than the rest of the sonata. It just bubbles along as Pokorny plays with a bright tone and a nice lilt to the rhythm.

But I could apply the same adjectives to the entire album. Everything here is just so energetic that it lifts the music out of its stodgy Germanic doldrums, giving each movement of each piece an energetic, almost Italianate feel that makes the listener smile in spite of Hindemith’s often bitonal approach. This is less noticeable in the Trumpet Sonata, where he emphasized the brightness of the instrument’s upper range while still writing interesting music. What impressed me more than anything was the way he could write long-lined melodies that keep morphing and changing yet always sound as if they were logical outgrowths of what had come before and a prelude to what will come after. Moreover, his piano writing, though a bit tricky, is less concerned with virtuosity than with structure. In so many places, the Trumpet Sonata especially, one listens as closely, if not more so, to what the piano is doing than to the lead instrument. Their music is almost the opposite of each other’s, yet the two lines dovetail nicely. I also liked the little swagger that Lichtmann gave to the piano solo portion of the Trumpet Sonata’s “Trauermasik alle menschen.”

The Alto Horn Sonata is a generally slower, more introspective piece than the first three, but it, too, does not lag or bog down in this beautifully phrased performance by Lichtmann and Larry Strieby, particularly the sprightly second movement with its dance-like rhythm. Thinking about this, it seems to me that the sheer complexity of the music is what often bogged down earlier performances. In the Gould recordings, the pianist is almost consistently lively and interesting, but not a single one of his horn partners sound as if they really understand, let alone like, the music they’re playing. Joy in performance goes a long way towards making these scores sound as good as they do.

I was particularly interested to hear the trombone sonata for one reason, and that is that the majority of classical trombonists do not have, in my view, a really good timbre. Most of them, in order to cut through an orchestra, adopt a cutting, brassy tone whereas many jazz trombonists from Miff Mole to J.J. Johnson and Jimmy Knepper usually had a more rounded sound. Our soloist here, Mark Lawrence, plays with a sound halfway between these two worlds, while I really appreciated, and he has a phenomenally easy technique that makes even the most difficult passages sound easy (as did Mole and Johnson).

In the Sonata for Four Horns there is no piano accompaniment. Here, Hindemith emphasized the lyrical side of the instruments, often blending two or more of them in interesting, shifting chord patterns. The third movement is particularly complex, calling for two of the horns to play rapid tongued triplets in one particular passage.

The Konzertmusik for piano, brass and two harps is even slower and more lyrical in the beginning than the four-horn sonata; the music is pensive and reflective, and it would have been easy for these performers to wallow in what I call “schlumph,” meaning turgid music that bogs itself down in complexity and morose feelings. Yet once the volume increases and the music picks up a bit, they play with good energy, and even the brief harp-and-piano duet does not sound morose. Even so, this was one piece I really didn’t like very much. The music, though decently constructed, just doesn’t say very much, and even the energetic passages sound to me like pedantic filler rather than interesting interludes.

In the Plöner Musiktag all the cats join in, so to speak. We have here four trumpets, three trombones, four French horns, tuba and piano. The mass of players go under the collective name of the Summit Brass, and here we actually have a conductor, Carl Topilow. This is generally a livelier and, to my ears, more interesting piece than the Konzertmusik, played at times with energy and at other times delicately.

Thus we come to the end of this two-disc survey of all of Hindemith’s chamber music for brass instruments, and although I think they should have ended it with the four-horn sonata because it’s an even better piece than Plöner Musiktag, it is surely one of the best representations of Hindemith’s music as I have ever heard.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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