Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hindemith's Choral Legacy on Record: An Appreciation

I first became familiar with the music of Hindemith as a young composition student back in the 1970s. As a trained musician I have always admired his work for its impeccable craftsmanship and formal elegance, for the seemingly inevitable logic of its construction, and for its pure, cerebral beauty. Hindemith's compositions were meticulously worked out in his head before being written down, each voice or instrumental part notated from beginning to end, one at a time. This sort of horizontal conceptualization is similar to what composers did in the Renaissance. In more recent centuries, highly prolific composers such as J.S. Bach, Mozart, Max Reger, and Darius Milhaud have all employed a similar working method. By the early 1930s, in the full flower of creative maturity, Hindemith's craft had settled into a comfortable, quasi-formulaic groove, his technical procedures so thoroughly internalized that he could, as on several occasions, compose pieces under imminent deadline within hours, or even within minutes, whether for radio broadcast (Trauermusik, written on the sudden death of George V in 1936), or recording (Scherzo for Viola and Cello (1934), composed on the spot in a studio during the recording session for the String Trio #2, when it was discovered that there would be an odd side left unused in the Electrola 78-rpm album).

To a casual listener, this constructivist approach to composition can easily be perceived as overly-academic, dry, dispassionate, or soullessly detached, a music more rooted in technique than enlivened by inspiration, or, perhaps, a music that is more science than art. Indeed, as an avid listener-for-pleasure (now retired from composing), I often find myself seeking or wishing for a pathos in Hindemith that isn't necessarily there. Yet I still adore this music for its democratic accessibility as well as its occasional flash of sly referential humor such as introducing Big Bill Broonzy's This Train into the finale of Pittsburg Symphony (1958), using the military march by Beethoven as a countermelody in the scherzo of the Sinfonia Serena (1946), or the sardonic quoting of Mendelssohn's Wedding March in the Concerto for Winds and Harp (1949). I delight in the luminous grandeur of Nobilissima Visione (1938) (based on themes by Machaut, reflecting Hindemith’s lifelong passion for early music), the Symphony: Mathis der Maler (1930), or the slow middle movement of the Cello Concerto (1940), basis for William Walton's glorious Variations on a Theme of Hindemith (1963); the sunny lyricism of the Der Schwanendreher Concerto (1935), and the somber dignity of Trauermusik.

Where his orchestral and chamber compositions are concerned, Hindemith has been served very well on record over the decades. Deutsche Gramophone and EMI have offered multi-disc retrospectives of the composer’s own recordings, both as conductor and viola soloist. The German label CPO issued a 15-disc set (3 slip-cased volumes (1987-1992)) of the complete orchestral music to coincide with the Hindemith centennial in 1991, and, as of this writing, the catalog lists no fewer than 43 recordings of the Symphony: Mathis der Maler. Another German label, Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) issued a 10-disc series of smaller-scale works, including the complete sonatas in 7 volumes, and a sparkling album of vocal chamber music, all performed by the marvelous Ensemble Villa Musica, in the early to mid-1990s. CPO and Naxos have released new recordings of the complete string quartets and other chamber works, and, it seems, new recordings and highly desirable re-issues of older ones show up almost every month.

Yet, with the exception of a few pieces, Hindemith's choral oeuvre has not faired quite so well on record, though, technically and stylistically, the music is no less accessible than the popular orchestral works. (A competent high-school choir can tackle the Rilke chansons with good results.) In fact, Hindemith's choral style feels quite conservative when compared to many of his contemporaries in the "professional avant-garde". He eschews the dense textures and towering chord clusters of the serialists (Schoenberg, Webern, Nono) as well as the ironically acerbic anti-settings of Stravinsky, in which the composer intentionally ignores the natural stresses in a text. By contrast, Hindemith strikes us today as positively tame, and, more often than not, refreshingly mellifluous, his neo-classicism closer to that of Brahms or Reger than Stravinsky. Compare, for instance, Hindemith's 1963 setting of the ordinary of the Mass (intended for practical liturgical use) with Stravinsky's "objective" 1947 concert setting for mixed choir and winds. It would be difficult to imagine a wider divide in attitude and style.

As far as I know, there has never been a truly comprehensive survey of Hindemith's choral music either on LP or CD. Probably one of the composer's most familiar and popular works, the Six Chansons after Rilke (1939) have shown up in choral anthologies as far back as the 1960s, notably, The Canby Singers for Nonesuch (1966), and the Gregg Smith Singers on a maddeningly boxy-sounding Grenadilla LP (1977). Un cygnet (The Swan) and the feather-light 30-second Puisque tout passé (Since all is passing) have made encore-like bows in a few collections, mostly on fairly obscure labels. But what of the other works? To find many of them, collectors have had to settle for a drib here and a drab there, along with a fair amount of redundancy and overlap.



Comes now this well-produced and most welcome 2013 release from Hänssler Classics featuring one of Hindemith's most intriguing and rarely heard choral compositions, Apparebit repentina dies for mixed chorus and ten brass instruments (1947), a work virtually absent from the catalog for nearly forty years. In addition, Marcus Creed leads well-polished readings of Hindemith's final composition, the Mass (1963), and the rarely recorded Songs on Old Texts Op. 33 (1923-1925), along with the Rilke Chansons. Part of Creed's superb on-going series of discs dedicated to the choral music of 20th century masters, now including albums devoted to Charles Ives, Eliot Carter, Alfred Schnitke, and Heitor Villa Lobos, these performances are solidly professional, the recorded sound is first rate, and the timing of the release, coming on the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death, couldn't be more apt.

And yet, I’d have to say that there are better performances, and better recent digital recordings of all this material, including Apparebit repentina dies. A collector only need know where to look.


The Mass has been issued on CD several times, including the rather indifferent-sounding 1996 reading by Fritz ter Wey and der Junge Chor Aachen, coupled with the twelve 5-Part Madrigals after texts of Josef Weinheber (1958) on CPO. Conductor Uwe Gronostay has recorded it superbly, not once but twice; with the Netherlands Chamber Choir in 1994 for Globe (GLO 5125), and with the Danish National Radio Choir for Chandos in 1995 (CHAN 9413).



Gronostay’s 1994 Globe album is probably the best single-disc survey of Hindemith’s a cappella choral music presently available; it is also the most readily comparable to the recent Hänssler release. In addition to the Chansons and Mass, the Globe CD features four of Hindemith's rarely heard Male Choruses (composed between 1929 and 1939), and six of the Madrigals (the other half of the set are on Gronostay’s Chandos album along with a superb reading of the Songs on Old Texts). In spite of their overlaps, the Hänssler and Globe albums complement each other quite admirably. Comparing performances, I was impressed by Gronostay's greater depth of expression. Listen, for example, to the Kyrie movement of the Mass. Gronostay is a full 60 seconds faster than Creed, and yet, seems to wring far more feeling—even something akin to passion—from the score. (Gronostay’s tempi are even more briskly pronounced in the Chandos recording.) Hänssler’s somewhat remote micing of the chorus aptly reflects Creed's more cerebral, emotionally detached approach to the music. (I consider both Gronostay and Creed's readings far superior to ter Wey's outing on CPO.)


Those who already own the Globe and Chandos CDs will still want to get this new disc for the Apparebit repentina dies.

Premiered at Harvard University in May 1947 at a symposium on music criticism, performed by the Collegiate Chorale and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Robert Shaw (who had also given the premier of Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd the previous year), Apparebit repentina dies (Now Dawns the Day of Repentance) sounds very much like the typical mature Hindemith, a tad somber in spots, perhaps a bit on the dry side, but unique among the composer's works in its instrumentation, and highly effective in exploiting the combination of choral and brass sonorities. Indeed, the power of the brass shines through at every turn, lending a measure of excitement to the music, which anything less than a first-rate chorus cannot always match. The unusual text, an early-Medieval forerunner of the Dies Irae, dates from the Seventh century. A rough-spun abecedarium (23 couplets, each couplet beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet), it is a formal conceit very much in accord with Hindemith's structural approach to music.

The Apparebit has a fairly scant recording history. A good performance coupled with the Mass was released by the German Wergo label (LP 60016 (1966)), recorded in September and December 1965 by the Schola Cantorum of Stuttgart with the brass ensemble of the Southwest German Radio SO (Baden Baden) under Clytus Gottwald. This recording was subsequently re-issued in Europe on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label, and in the US on Mace-Scepter (MCS 9095 (1967?) LP and cassette, disappearing from the American catalog altogether by the early 1980s. This recording was available, however briefly, on CD as part of a massive, impractically expensive box set retrospective of the Wergo label.

Since the beginning of the new century, three additional performances have appeared on CD, including this Creed/Hanssler recording. One can fairly quickly dispense consideration of the live performance at the 2007 WASBE convention in Killarney Ireland with the Chetham's School of Music Symphonic Wind Orchestra and the Chamber Choir and Consortium of Irish Choirs, directed by Martin Bussey (Mark 7218 MCD); a fairly dull performance, marred by noise from the audience and indifferent choral singing.



Berlin Classics 1735-2 Wake, Awake! (2001) features the Big Band and Chorus of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Kenny Wheeler, and was the first mainstream professional studio recording of Apparebit repentina dies to appear in nearly four decades. It is a truly outstanding performance, albeit part of a rather oddly eclectic program, including Stravinsky’s Mass in addition to a handful of eccentric, jazz-inflected classics. The Berlin Classics album is currently out of print and commanding a pretty hefty price from the few sellers who have a copy to part with, though it has been available (and quite reasonably priced) as an MP3 download since 2008.

I would first recommend the Wheeler/Bamberg recording of the Apparebit repentina dies, for its greater depth, vibrant, immediate sound, and the sheer expressive power of the chorus. These singers seem to have studied the meaning of the text, and that understanding is conveyed with extraordinary dignity and grandeur. Creed makes a powerful case for the music, but not nearly so convincing or memorable as Wheeler. Though I do not think most listeners will be at all disappointed by this new recording. Creed’s program fills (permanently one would hope) a huge gap in the Hindemith discography, and one could hardly ask for a more polished performance. Highly recommended to Hindemith fans, and all those truly adventuresome lovers of Twentieth century choral music.




Globe 5125 (1994)
Hindemith: Mass (1963)
Twelve Madrigals (1958) (#s 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12);
Six Chansons after Rilke (1939)
Male Choruses (1929-1939)
The Netherlands Chamber Choir
Uwe Gronostray

Chandos CHAN 9413 (1995)
Hindemith: Mass
Twelve Madrigals (#s 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11)
Songs on Old Texts Op. 33 (1923-1925)
Danish National Radio Choir
Uwe Gronostay

CPO 999 345 2 (1996)
Hindemith: Mass
Twelve Madrigals
Der Junge Chor Aachen
Fritz ter Wey

Berlin Classics 1735-2 (2001)
Wake, Awake!
Hindemith: Apparebit repentina dies (for choir and 10 brass instruments) (1947)
Stravinsky: Mass (for chorus and winds) (1947)
Plus works by J.S. Bach, Lackner, Wheeler and Hollenbeck
Big Band and Chorus of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Kenny Wheeler

Wergo WER 66422 (2001)
Hindemith Lieder, Chöre, Kanons
(Songs, Choruses and Canons)
Hindemith: Male Choruses
Songs on Old Texts Op. 33
Variations on an Old Dance Song for male chorus
The Demon of the Gibbet for male chorus
Canons (various voicings)
Berlin Radio Chorus
Robin Gritton 


Mark 7218 MCD (2007)
(live recording, WASBE world convention, Killarney, Ireland)
Hindemith: Apparebit repentina dies
Plus works by Marco Putz and Joseph Phibbs
Chetham's School of Music Symphonic Wind Orchestra
Chamber Choir and Consortium of Irish Choirs
Martin Bussey


Hänssler Classics 93.295 (2013)
Hindemith: Apparebit repentina dies
Six Chansons after Rilke
Songs on Old Texts Op. 33
SWR Vocal Ensemble, Stuttgart.
Marcus Creed


Wergo WER 60016 (1966)
(recorded September-December, 1965)
(subsequently re-issued:
Deutsche Harmonia-Mundi (?) (1968?)
Mace (MCS 9095 (1967?))
Hindemith: Mass
Apparebit repentina dies
Schola Cantorum of Stuttgart:
Brass ensemble of the Southwest German Radio SO (Baden Baden)
Clytus Gottwald


Deutsche Harmonia-Mundi DHM 1001-03 (3-LP set) (1982)
(EMI Electorla F 667.720-667.722)
Zeitgenössische Musik in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1945- 1950
(Musical Mysticism in West Germany, 1945-1950)
Hindemith: Apparebit repentina dies
String Quartet #6
Symphony in B-flat
Plus works by Strauss, Egk, Pepping and others
Cologne Radio Symphony Chorus and Brass Ensemble
Herbert Schernus

Nonesuch H-71115 (1966)
The Dove Descending: Choral Music by Stravinsky, Hindemith, Carter & Warlock
Hindemith: Six Chansons after Rilke
Stravinsky: The Dove Descending
Carter: Heart Not So Heavy As Mine
The Canby Singers

Grenadilla GS 1034 (1977)
Modern Ayres, Canzonets & Madrigals
Hindemith: Six Chansons after Rilke
Plus works by Fauré and Kodaly
The Gregg Smith Singers

Lyrichord LLST 7161 (date?)
The Last Works of Hindemith and Schoenberg
Hindemith: Mass
Schoenberg: Dreimal Tausend Jahre
The Whikehart Chorale 


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