Amar-Hindemith Quartet Complete Recordings – Complete notes by Tully Potter

Amar-Hindemith Quartet: Amar-Hindemith Quartet Complete Recordings

Here are the expanded notes for Amar-Hindemith Quartet: Amar-Hindemith Quartet Complete Recordings – PACD 96070/2

In the wake of the Great War and the revolution that deposed the Kaiser and numerous dukes and princelings, Germany’s musical infrastructure was in flux. Among myriad musicians getting used to civilian life again, after several years in uniform, was Paul Hindemith, a multi-talented young violinist and composer who could play almost every instrument in the orchestra. Born near Frankfurt on 16 November 1895, in 1908 he entered Dr Hoch’s Conservatorium in that city, at first studying only violin although he had begun to compose works including an apprentice string quartet. In 1912 he entered Arnold Mendelssohn’s composition class and when that beloved teacher left in 1913, he transferred to Bernhard Sekles. Of course his studies included writing string quartets and this most sophisticated of forms played an ever larger role in his life as composer and performer. Soon after the war began, he inherited the second violin chair in the Frankfurt-based quartet of his violin teacher Adolf Rebner; and even during his time in the military he led a quartet, thanks to culturally enlightened commanding officers. When he was demobilised, he asked Rebner if he could switch to viola in the quartet.

Composers have always preferred to play this instrument, which places them in the midst of the harmony; and as it demands slightly less of them technically than the violin, composition time is not all eaten up by practice. Soon Hindemith became enamoured of the viola for its own sake, discovering its range of tone colours. This love affair with the instrument was to provide him with a new avocation, as a solo violist; and his need for something to play would give him and fellow violists a magnificent range of modern repertoire.

As a quartet player, Hindemith was keen to compose something lasting for the medium, and in 1915 he wrote his C major Quartet, Op. 2. It won the prize for the year’s best composition at the Hoch Conservatory and had at least one performance. It then disappeared and was thought to be lost; but it turned up and was published by Schott in 1994. It is now the official First Quartet, the earliest complete work from Hindemith’s pen. Next came the F minor, Op.10, written in 1918 and entered unsuccessfully in the Berkshire Festival competition sponsored that year in Massachusetts by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was probably privately performed by Hindemith’s army ensemble but its official première was given by the Rebner Quartet in Frankfurt on 2 June 1919, with Hindemith on viola. Within months, early in 1920, he completed another quartet, Op. 16, which his friend Emma Lübbecke-Job submitted to the new Donaueschingen Festival. It was accepted and in the summer of 1921 Hindemith arrived at the festival with every confidence of success – Fritz Busch had just performed his one-act operas Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen and Das Nusch-Nuschi in Stuttgart, creating a satisfying scandal.

The sole German quartet ensemble specialising in contemporary music was the Berlin-based Havemann Quartet, led by Gustav of that ilk, a pupil of Joseph Joachim; but he was already showing signs of the political obsessions which would make him Adolf Hitler’s most slavish musical admirer. Having agreed to take on Op.16, he and his colleagues then backed out, precipitating a crisis out of which the Amar Quartet was born. Hindemith called on the work’s dedicatee, his younger brother Rudolf (born Frankfurt, 19 January 1900, died Munich, 7 October 1974), to play the cello in the performance on 1 August and sought two violinists. He came up with the Mannheim Nationaltheater concertmaster Licco Amar (born Budapest, 4 December 1891, died Freiburg, 19 July 1959), who in turn suggested a colleague, Walter Caspar (born Breslau 2 May 1881, died Frankfurt, 15 November 1953), as second violinist. We know little about Caspar – although he was skilled enough to stand in for Amar when Reger’s First Trio and part of Hindemith’s First Trio were recorded – but Amar’s history is interesting. Son of a Turkish father and a Moravian mother, he was taught by Emil Baré at the Franz Liszt Conservatory in his native city, graduating in 1910. He then studied with Henri Marteau at the Berlin Hochschule until 1912, when he took over as second fiddle in Marteau’s quartet. In 1915 he succeeded Louis Persinger as Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster, moving in 1920 to Mannheim, where he was to stay until 1923.

Hindemith’s opus went so well at Donaueschingen that the four men decided to make their ensemble a permanent entity. Hindemith himself was still involved with the Rebner Quartet until the end of the year, so it was May 1922 before they could begin working on repertoire. Although Central Europe had a thriving network of chamber music societies, especially in Germany, a quartet had to work hard to survive; and the Amar ensemble made things harder for themselves by prioritising contemporary music. No wonder they were soon giving 120 to 130 concerts a season. But they radiated a spirit of adventure and felt part of a tightly-knit cohort of avant-gardists, mostly linked with Donaueschingen. At the 1922 festival they made friends with the Zika (Prague) Quartet, who were similar in that the driving force came from the viola chair, filled capaciously by that Falstaffian figure Ladislav Černý. Hindemith was greatly taken with Černý, four years older than he. Posterity’s main gain from their friendship was Hindemith’s great solo Viola Sonata, Op. 25 No. 1, much influenced by its dedicatee Černý (it was the Czech’s idea to play the fourth movement at a furious tempo); but Hindemith was also clearly impressed by Černý’s perfectionism and his meticulous marking of quartet music so as to bring out the vital voices. The other festival with which the Amar foursome were associated from the start was the International Society for Contemporary Music summer get-together in Salzburg: at the first gathering in August 1922, during which the ISCM was formed, Amar, Caspar and Hindemith gave the first airing outside Hungary of Kodály’s new Serenade, Op.12; and the whole group presented Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, Op. 10, with Félicie Hüni-Mihacsek singing the tricky vocal part, as well as Hindemith’s Op. 16, of which The Times reported: ‘Although not highly original, it showed a musicianship, knowledge of string writing, and above all a homogeneity, which were elsewhere hard to find.’

One of the Amar Quartet’s initial tasks was to prepare Hindemith’s Fourth Quartet, Op. 22, which he composed in 1921 for himself and his friends to play. It was given its first performance at Donaueschingen on 4 November 1922 and became the group’s calling card, receiving 127 performances – more than any other work in their repertoire. It was a happy alignment of stars: Hindemith came up with one of his finest creations at precisely the right time, although at first it had to compete with Op. 16 and did not have its second outing until 3 February 1923, in Prague. Louise Varèse’s diary mentions a Berlin concert on 1 November 1922, at which Hindemith’s Op.16 was played by the Amar Quartet, other performers contributing works by Busoni, Lourié, Edgard Varèse and Bernard van Dieren. At that stage the Amar players were also performing Schoenberg’s one-movement D minor Quartet, Op. 7 – it shared a matinée programme with Hindemith’s Op. 16 at the Mainz Stadttheater on 17 December 1922.

The next year saw several Hindemith premières: the enjoyable Minimax for quartet was performed at Donaueschingen on 26 July and the Clarinet Quintet at the ISCM Festival, Salzburg, on 7 August, with Philipp Dreisbach. Other Amar contributions to Salzburg were Ernst Krenek’s Third Quartet, described by The Times as ‘a terrifying work’; Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, with Dreisbach and Andrée Vaurabourg; and Czech composer Alois Hába’s Second Quartet in quarter-tones, which they had just done at Donaueschingen. Edwin Evans, who attended both festivals for The Musical Times, wrote: ‘Not only is the quartet a remarkably fine one, but its enterprise is an example to all. This year … it claims to have studied no fewer than forty new works, and I can vouch that when it says “studied”, it does not mean scrambled through as we would, alas, have reason to suspect at home. When it engages to present the exacting works of the Schönberg group or of other modern composers, it performs them with the authority of intimate knowledge. These players bore most of the burden at Donaueschingen this year, and after the briefest of intervals were heard again at Salzburg. One can speak of them unreservedly with the warm regard due to devoted and capable musicians’. Hindemith’s Fifth Quartet was introduced in the Mittlerer Saal of the Konzerthaus, Vienna, on 26 October 1923, during a week of modern music, and the heroic String Trio, Op. 34, on 6 August 1924 at the ISCM Festival in Salzburg – at both events the Amars also played Philipp Jarnach’s Op. 16. Two of Hindemith’s dedications showed how his circle was widening: the Quintet was for the Winterthur Maecenas and amateur clarinettist Werner Reinhart, the Trio for Hába. At the festival of the Allgemeine deutsche Musikverein in Frankfurt, in June 1924, the Amar Quartet contributed Hába’s Second Quartet to an all-Hába concert.

The circle was expanded by the Amar Quartet’s efforts on behalf of other composers. Among performances by the whole ensemble, one finds the names Bartók (Opp. 7 and 17), Beck, Berg, Bloch, Casella, Debussy, Delius, Finke, Hoff, Honegger, Jirák, Kodály, Krása, Krenek, Lothar, Lourié, Malipiero, Martinů, Milhaud, Novák, Oboussier, Odak, Pfitzner, Ravel, Reger, Schoenberg (Opp. 7 and 19), Sekles, Stravinsky, Stürmer, Szymanowski, Vogel, (Ludwig) Weber, Webern, Wellesz, Wohlfahrt and Zemlinsky. Then there were such pieces as Ravel’s Duo for violin and cello, Kodály’s Serenade for two violins and viola and various piano quartets, as well as piano quintets and string quintets. The group’s less radical fare took in Haydn, Mozart, Dittersdorf, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Borodin, Smetana, Dvořák and Verdi. They would eventually tour quite widely, as far as England in the West, Russia in the East, Denmark in the North and Italy in the South. Unfortunately tensions seethed within the group, perhaps caused by Hindemith’s taking too many leaves out of Černý’s book. Rudolf Hindemith, who found it hard to accept orders from his brother, decamped fairly soon – from 1921 to 1924 he was solo cellist at the Vienna State Opera. His replacement, the Dutchman Maurits Frank (1892-1959) who had been with Hindemith in the Rebner Quartet, stayed for only a few years; he then based himself in Prague, where he played in the quartet led by Martinů’s friend Stanislav Novák – they premièred Martinů’s Second Quartet.

Returning in the autumn of 1924, Rudolf Hindemith was immediately faced with hard labour. On 19 December the Amars were at the Union Hotel in Ljubljana, playing Stravinsky’s Concertino; Schubert’s little E flat, D87; Croatian composer Krsto Odak’s B flat, Op. 5; Hindemith’s Op. 32; and Hába’s Second. Rudolf was to take part in virtually all the group’s recordings, as well as such premières as Pfitzner’s C sharp minor, Op. 36, introduced at the Klindworth-Scharwenka-Saal, Berlin, on 6 November 1925, after a try-out at a private concert in Greiz five days earlier; and Lothar’s Op. 41, first heard at Donaueschingen on 24 July 1926. The Pfitzner provided one of the funnier Hindemith stories: after Paul had voiced strong support for it, Pfitzner sent Rudolf the manuscript of the first movement, with permission for the Amar players to copy out the parts. Several letters from Pfitzner requesting the return of the MS brought the confession that Rudolf had left it on a train. In truth, it may well have been shredded by Paul’s large dogs. The Amars made amends by programming the work, a massive four-movement structure lasting almost 40 minutes, regularly over the next year.

The Amar Quartet made their London début in a BBC ‘International Chamber Concert of New Music’ at Grotrian Hall on 7 December 1926. On the bill were Jarnach’s Op. 16, of which the radio audience missed the first movement (those were the days of hit-or-miss live broadcasts), Reger’s gorgeous First String Trio, Op.77b, and Hindemith’s Op.22. ‘The playing of the Amar Quartet was everything that could be desired,’ wrote the critic of The Times. ‘They put the “contemporary” composers in the best possible light, because they have assimilated the idiom so thoroughly that the hearer is entirely relieved from any sense of strain. They lay Jarnach and Hindemith before us as though they were Haydn and Dittersdorf…’ The following evening, they bookended a Nonsuch Press recital at Wigmore Hall, with the quartets by Verdi and Sibelius – also taking part were Arthur Benjamin, baritone John Goss and John Ireland.

Four months later, Rudolf walked out on the others again. Paul Hindemith thereupon wrote to Frank, promising an easier life without any more clashes if the Dutch cellist would only return. The quartet continued for a further two years: in May 1928 they were in London for BBC broadcasts: on the 6th Beethoven’s Op. 95, Schubert’s early G minor, D173, and Mozart’s D minor; and on the 7th Bartók’s First Quartet and Hindemith’s String Trio and Hindemith’s Op. 44/4 – Eduard Steuermann also played piano pieces by Bartók and Schoenberg. Two weeks later at the Schwerin Festival they played Webern’s String Trio and Erich-Walter Sternberg’s Second Quartet. On a trip to London in April 1929 they participated in two more BBC promotions: a studio concert – songs by Liza Lehmann (with soprano Odette de Foras), Beethoven’s G major String Trio and e’s F sharp minor Quartet – and a ‘Concert of Contemporary Music’ at the Arts Theatre Club, where the programme was framed with Martinů’s Second and Hindemith’s Fifth, Op. 32 (the latter not broadcast); in between came Marcelle Meyer with Stravinsky’s Serenade for piano, Hindemith with his Op. 25/1 and Meyer with Nicholas Nabokov’s First Sonata. Concerts followed at Essen on the 20th (Mozart E flat, K428, Reger Second String Trio and Schubert G major) and Gelsenkirchen-Buer on the 22nd (Mozart ‘Dissonance’, Beethoven G major Trio and Schumann A major).

After that, Hindemith called it a day. The Amar Quartet had served its purpose in his life. He had a burgeoning solo career; he was living and teaching in Berlin; and he had to concentrate on the main game, which for him was composition. In Berlin he founded a string trio with Josef Wolfsthal (replaced on Wolfsthal’s death by Szymon Goldberg) and Emanuel Feuermann. Amar and Frank formed a piano trio with Frank’s wife Luise. The quartet continued for a while, with Erich Kraak in Hindemith’s seat. On 23 and 25 August 1931 they were in London for BBC broadcasts, one shared with baritone Mark Raphael, the other with Eduard Steuermann. On 27 March 1933 they were back for a BBC Chamber Concert (Brahms C minor, Mozart F major, K590); and three days later they shared a broadcast with tenor John Armstrong and John Ireland. Of the Chamber Concert, The Times pronounced: ‘In finish the performances were excellent, and there was much to admire in the individual work of the players, especially the fine tone of the violoncellist. The total effect was, however, unpleasing owing to the hard, not to say harsh, tone of the ensemble and the unpoetical interpretation. We have never heard Brahms’s music handled so unsympathetically, and Mozart’s Quartet fared little better. One almost expected that the players were approaching the music as if it had been written by Paul Hindemith, the original violist of the quartet, and were determined to avoid charms and sensuousness.’ So even when he was not present, Hindemith was influencing opinion!

In a mere eight years of life, the Amar-Hindemith Quartet did much. Not the least of their achievements was to provide Hindemith with a laboratory in which he could experience some of his music in performance, study other men’s works in depth and hone his craft. They also gave him a day-to-day working environment in which he flourished naturally. It has to be said that one listens to Hindemith’s own playing to hear a great musical personality and a penetrating interpreter rather than an agreeable viola tone. In his time Frankfurt was not a progressive centre of string playing and his training was essentially that of a nineteenth-century violinist, adapted to the viola. Like other notables of his era – Huberman, for instance – he never came to terms with modern attitudes to vibrato. Hence the somewhat angular aspect of his playing. In the trio with Goldberg and Feuermann he was sandwiched between two of the most progressive players of the century and the contrast was occasionally a little odd, whereas he fitted much better into the quartet.

The quartet began recording for Deutsche Grammophon acoustically in 1925: single sides by Krenek and Stravinsky, persuasively played, and a complete version of Hindemith’s Fourth Quartet, Op. 22. In addition the Hindemith brothers set down the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Eyeglass’ Duet and the Duett from Hindemith’s Op. 35, performances which proved that Paul could get round quite a big viola with considerable dexterity. Further sessions took place electrically in 1926, including a remake of Hindemith’s Op. 22, and 1927. The finales of Mozart’s K428 and Dvorák’s Op. 96 served as fillers for Mozart’s K590 and Verdi’s E minor respectively – ironically the whole of K428 was recorded later, so listeners can have fun trying to spot differences between the two traversals of the Haydnesque Allegro vivace. The earlier version is more clearly and forwardly recorded, despite being made by a controversial method. Just two Mozart movements were recorded for Parlophon in 1928 with Frank as cellist: they appear to be his sole recordings.

The performances on these discs have one thing in common: they are almost shockingly direct, so that one hears the mind of the composer Hindemith working behind every note. Anyone used to the readings of Mozart’s K428 and Beethoven’s Op. 96 by, say, the Busch or Smetana Quartets may feel a lack of colour and nuance here. Similarly, listeners brought up on the breadth of phrasing that the Amadeus Quartet brought to K590 may find the Amar performance disappointing at first hearing. And yet, if the listener is patient, much will be gained by attending carefully to this no-frills approach. The outer movements of the Verdi may be rather rushed and perfunctory but the players redeem themselves in the Andantino, even indulging in little nudges of portamento. Led by Walter Caspar, the Reger A minor Trio, Op. 77b, is lovely, making an interesting comparison with the 1935 version by members of the Klingler Quartet – who take the Larghetto even more slowly – and a nice companion for the 1937 recording of the Serenade, Op. 77a, by Gustav Scheck and the Klingler brothers. The Bartók performance is particularly interesting because it was the first recording of any work by this composer. So there was no ‘tradition’ to guide the players. Here one senses that Amar, with his Budapest background and training, is quite at home, especially in the central movement; but again it is the almost naked ‘straightness’ of the interpretation that intrigues one. What Bartók thought of the recording is not known but he was on good terms with Hindemith; and other composers, among them the pernickety Schoenberg, expressed themselves satisfied with Amar performances of their works.

Of course the documents of Hindemith’s own works are immensely valuable. The two versions of the Op. 22 Quartet are fascinating, the different recording characteristics shedding interesting lights on the playing before one even gets to the interpretations, which are very alike in outline. Thus we can be pretty sure that this was how the composer intended the piece to go. Where does that leave an ensemble with a similarly forensic reputation, the Juilliard Quartet, whose recording is slower in every movement? The piece is in the ‘arch’ form which Bartók took over from Hindemith, and the Amars make each different tempo sound thoroughly convincing. It is a shame that we have only the first half of the String Trio No. 1, Op. 34, but the two contrasting movements are very well played by Caspar and the Hindemith brothers. From Die Serenaden (‘Kleine Kantate nach romantischen Texten’), dedicated to Hindemith’s wife Gertrud and first performed for Radio Frankfurt on 30 October 1924 by Gertrud, Paul and Rudolf Hindemith with oboist Paul Hönsch, we have just the Duett for viola and cello that opens Part 2 of the cantata.