Paul Hindemith’s Violin Sonatas – Tanja Becker-Bender & Péter Nagy [Hyperion]

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The Four Sonatas for Violin and Piano – in E flat, Op.11/1; in D, Op.11/2; in E; in C
Nobilissima visione – Meditation [transcribed by the composer for violin & piano]

Tanja Becker-Bender (violin) & Péter Nagy (piano)

Recorded November 2012 in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: December 2013
Duration: 57 minutes



Few if any twentieth-century composers wrote for as many different instruments as Paul Hindemith, yet recordings of his chamber music perhaps understandably tend towards that of his own instrument, the viola. Yet Hindemith was a more than competent violinist, too – it was his first instrument before he took up the viola – and this valuable Hyperion release bolsters the marking of the 50th-anniversary of his death (he passed away on 28 December 1963) with accomplished performances of his four Violin Sonatas.

Two of them, those published as Opus 11, are relatively early and date from 1918. At this point Brahms was a prominent figure for Hindemith, as was César Franck, and the influence of the former can be found particularly in the touching second theme of the D major Sonata’s middle movement, not to mention the bracing unisons of the main idea of the E flat work, which is even more obviously Brahmsian in its harmony and melodic trajectory, a Romantic and passionate declaration that is especially well realised here.

The short, 10-minute, E major Sonata dates from 1936, by which time Hindemith was subjected to a broadcasting ban on his music. The work is curiously structured in two movements, and the distracted start suggests Hindemith had other things on his mind when writing it. There is an underlying serenity but there are troubled thoughts on the edges too, which come more to the fore in the deeply felt second movement, where Tanja Becker-Bender is fuller of tone.

The C major Sonata brings a bracing and invigorating opening, violin and piano in a unison melody that sets the tone for the whole work. This is in many ways a celebration of freedom, Hindemith having moved from Germany to Switzerland, and it makes the most powerful impact of the four Sonatas. The unusually contemplative beginning to the second movement has an openness not previously found in these works. Becker-Bender plays with a sweet, lyrical tone, while Péter Nagy offers thoughtful punctuation. Meanwhile the closing fugue is an unexpectedly intense affair, far indeed from the academic approach often assumed to emanate from this composer. The emphatic finish portrays something of the unexpected triumph Hindemith must have felt on arriving in a country that would accept him.

An appropriate encore can be found in the ‘Meditation’ from Hindemith’s vastly underrated ballet score Nobilissima Visione, completed in 1937. Though this transcribes even more effectively for viola and piano, Becker-Bender and Nagy give a warmly expressive account of the violin version that Hindemith made the following year.

Overall these are insightful and communicative performances, flouting the notion that Hindemith’s music lacks emotion or energy. In fact, the opposite is altogether truer! These readings are complemented by an extremely informative booklet note from Malcolm MacDonald that helpfully places the music in a political context – which with Hindemith is doubly important.

Hyperion has already issued Hindemith’s Viola Sonatas with Lawrence Power. Could this company now consider an excursion into the wide range of other such works that Hindemith wrote for instruments such as the tuba, cor anglais and viola d’amore … which would be very welcome.

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