November, 2015

HINDEMITH Mathis der Maler

by Tim Ashley

The second disc in Christoph Eschenbach’s Hindemith series with the NDR Sinfonieorchester brings together the works that effectively marked the beginning and end of the major crisis in the composer’s life. The Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934), drawing on material from his opera about the need for artistic integrity in dark political times, brought him into direct confrontation with the Nazis, setting in motion the chain of events that led to his exile in 1938. The Symphony in E flat (1940) was his first orchestral score to be composed after his arrival in the United States, where he eventually took citizenship. Though rarely performed or recorded together, they make a significant pairing.
Both are performed with great nobility and considerable eloquence. Eschenbach’s trademark fondness for textural warmth and clarity is much to the fore in Mathis, where strings and woodwind are admirably numinous, the complex counterpoint in both the ‘Engelkonzert’ and the ‘Temptation’ beautifully detailed. The central ‘Grablegung’ is slow, rich-sounding and very introverted. The state-of-the-art recording, pristine and wide-ranging but with no sense of dynamic exaggeration, helps him at the big climaxes, which are imposing, at times even monumental, and there’s a beguiling elegance to the instrumental solos that thread their way through the textures. Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic on DG have more dramatic bite but this is superbly done nevertheless.
Eschenbach’s approach to the underrated Symphony in E flat, meanwhile, is epic, thoughtful and at times startlingly measured. He is wonderfully attuned to the complex trajectory of a work that looks back from a newly acquired place of safety on an old world irrevocably damaged. The opening Sehr lebhaft has terrific élan, the scherzo a supple, gracious wit. The orchestral clarity is again breathtaking. But placed beside the almost reckless energy of Bernstein (Sony – nla) or Hindemith himself (DG), you notice a grander manner and slower speeds. Eschenbach’s long-breathed way with the crucial Sehr langsam steers it closer to ritual mourning than private grief, though his treatment of the work’s closing pages, in which sadness briefly threatens to intrude upon gathering joy, is moving in the extreme.

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