Arbiter Records 139

Hindemith as Interpreter: The Amar Hindemith String Quartet

Track List

The Amar-Hindemith String Quartet, formed by the composer Paul Hindemith, existed from 1921 – 1928 and was the foremost interpreter of new music. Their performances were guided by the perspective of a composer's insight and thus reveal musical struture in a unique way. The Bartók Second String Quartet is a premiere recording.

  1. Mozart String Quartet K. 428 in E flat: I
  2. Mozart String Quartet K. 428 in E flat: II
  3. Mozart String Quartet K. 428 in E flat: III
  4. Mozart String Quartet K. 428 in E flat: IV
  5. Bartók String Quartet no.2: I
  6. Bartók String Quartet no.2: II
  7. Bartók String Quartet no.2: III
  8. Beethoven String Quartet op. 95 in F minor: I
  9. Beethoven String Quartet op. 95 in F minor: II
  10. Beethoven String Quartet op. 95 in F minor: III
  11. Beethoven String Quartet op. 95 in F minor: IV

At the start of the 1920s, music in Germany was in surprisingly good heart. The revolution after the Great War had disrupted concert life for a time but things had soon settled down. In the wake of the Kaiser’s departure for the Netherlands, the court theatres of the various parts of the German Empire had simply adopted more prosaic titles and their functionaries had become ‘state’ employees. The economy was not good ­ it would virtually implode in the great inflation of 1923 ­ but music was so basic to German culture that even its most exotic branch, chamber music, was blooming again. The country could boast perhaps the finest string quartet ensemble in the world, led by Adolf Busch, who had returned to his native country from Vienna and had settled in Berlin, and other notable groups were led by the Joachim pupils Karl Klingler (Berlin), Bram Eldering (Cologne) and Carl Wendling (Stuttgart). In Leipzig, Edgar Wollgandt still presided over the Gewandhaus Quartet. Such ensembles dealt mainly in the classics, however, with Reger as the only modern composer of note represented in their repertoire. The sole ensemble specialising in contemporary music was based in Berlin, led by another Joachim pupil, Gustav Havemann; but he was already showing signs of the political obsessions which would make him Adolf Hitler’s most slavish musical admirer.

Among the many musicians who were getting used to civilian life again, after several years in uniform, was Paul Hindemith. This multi-talented musician, who could play virtually every instrument in the orchestra, was best known as a violinist and a composer. Born near Frankfurt on 16 November 1895, he entered Dr Hoch’s Conservatorium in that city in 1908, at first studying only the violin even though he had already begun to produce compositions including an apprentice string quartet. In 1912 he entered Arnold Mendelssohn’s composition class and when that beloved teacher moved on in 1913, he transferred to Bernhard Sekles. Of course his studies included writing string quartets and this most sophisticated of musical forms played an ever larger role in his life as both composer and performer. Soon after the war began he took over 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 demobbed, 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 it demands slightly less of them technically than the violin, so that composition time is not all eaten up by practice. It was not long before Hindemith became deeply enamoured of the viola for its own sake, discovering a whole new 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 was to give both him and his 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 a C major Quartet which became his Op. 2. It won the prize for the year’s best composition at the Hoch Conservatory and was given at least one performance. It then disappeared from view and was thought by many scholars to be lost but turned up and was published by Schott in 1994: it is now the official First Quartet , the earliest complete work we have from Hindemith’s pen. The composer’s next string quartet was that in F minor, Op. 10, written in 1918 and entered unsuccessfully in the Berkshire Festival competition sponsored that year by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in Massachusetts. It probably had private performances by Hindemith’s army ensemble but its official première was given by the Rebner Quartet, with Hindemith playing the viola, in Frankfurt on 2 June 1919. Within months, in early 1920, he had completed another quartet, his Op. 16, which his friend Emma Lübbecke-Job submitted to the new Donaueschingen Festival. It was accepted and in summer of 1921 Hindemith arrived at the Festival with every confidence of success, as he was very much the man of the hour: Fritz Busch, conductor brother of Adolf, had just performed his one-act operas Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen and Das Nusch-Nuschi in Stuttgart, creating a satisfying scandal.

However the chosen performers, the Havemann Quartet, refused to do Op. 16. Out of this crisis the Amar Quartet (often known as the Amar-Hindemith Quartet) was born. Hindemith called on his younger brother Rudolf, the work’s dedicatee, to play the cello in the performance on 1 August and set about finding two violinists. He came up with the Mannheim Nationaltheater concertmaster Licco Amar (1891-1959), who in turn suggested a colleague, Walter Caspar, as second violinist. We know little about Caspar, although he was a good enough player to stand in for Amar when part of Hindemith’s First String Trio was recorded, but Amar’s history is interesting. The son of a Turkish father and a Moravian mother, he was born in Budapest and was taught by Emil Baré at the Conservatory there, graduating in 1910. He then studied with Henri Marteau at the Hochschule in Berlin until 1912, when he took over as second violinist in Marteau’s quartet. In 1915 he succeeded Louis Persinger as concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, moving in 1920 to Mannheim, where he was to stay until 1923.

Meanwhile the performance of Hindemith’s work at Donaueschingen went so well that the four men decided to make their ensemble a permanent entity, and in May 1922 they began to give regular concerts. Although Central Europe provided a thriving network of chamber music societies, especially in Germany, a quartet had to work hard to survive; and the Amar-Hindemith ensemble made things harder for itself by specialising in modern music. No wonder it was soon giving 120 to 130 concerts a season. But the four young men radiated a spirit of adventure and felt themselves to be part of a tightly-knit group of avant-gardists, mostly associated with Donaueschingen. At the 1922 festival they made friends with the Zika (or Prague) Quartet, which was similar in that the driving force came from the viola chair, filled capaciously by the Falstaffian figure of Ladislav Cerny. Hindemith was greatly taken with Cerny, who was four years older than he. The main result for posterity from their friendship was Hindemith’s great solo Viola Sonata, Op. 25, No. 1, which was much influenced by its dedicatee Cerny (among other things, it was the Czech’s idea to play the fourth movement at a furious tempo); but Hindemith was also clearly influenced by Cerny’s perfectionism and his meticulous marking of quartet music so as to bring out the important voices.

One of the Amar Quartet’s initial tasks was to prepare Hindemith’s Fourth Quartet, Op.22, which he composed in 1921 specially 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 its repertoire. It was a happy conjunction of forces: Hindemith just happened to come up with one of his finest compositions at precisely the right time. The following year, 1923, saw premières of the enjoyable Minimax for quartet (Donaueschingen, 26 July), the Clarinet Quintet (ISCM Festival, Salzburg, 7 August, with Philipp Dreisbach) and the 5th Quartet (Vienna, 5 November). The heroic String Trio, Op. 34, was first played at the ISCM Festival in Salzburg on 6 August 1924. Two of the dedications showed how Hindemith’s circle had widened: the Quintet for the Winterthur Maecenas and amateur clarinettist Werner Reinhart, the Trio for the Czech quarter-tone composer Alois Hába.

The circle was also expanded by the Amar Quartet’s efforts on behalf of other composers. Among performances by the whole ensemble, one finds the names Bartók, Beck, Berg, Casella, Debussy, Delius, Finke, Hába, Honegger, Jarnach, Jirak, Kodály, Krenek, Lourié, Malipiero, Martinu, Milhaud, Novák, Odak, Ravel, Reger, Schoenberg, Sekles, Stravinsky, Vogel, (Ludwig) Weber, Webern and Wellesz. Then there were such pieces as Ravel’s Duo Sonata 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, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Dvorák and Verdi. Louise Varèse’s diary mentions a concert given in Berlin 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. The Amar Quartet toured quite widely, as far as England in the West, Russia in the East, Denmark in the North and Italy in the South. Unfortunately there were tensions within the group, perhaps caused by Hindemith’s taking too many leaves out of Cerny’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, Maurits Frank (1892-1959) from the Netherlands, stayed for only a few years; he then based himself in Prague, where he played in the quartet led by Martinu’s friend Stanislav Novák: it premièred Martinu’s Second Quartet. Rudolf Hindemith returned and took part in all the group’s recordings, as well as its London début ­ at a BBC ‘International Chamber Concert of New Music’, Grotrian Hall, on 7 December 1926. On the programme 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 lovely little String Trio, Op. 71a, 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’

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 and on a trip to London in April 1929 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 Reger’s F sharp minor Quartet – and a ‘Concert of Contemporary Music’ at the Arts Theatre Club. There the programme was framed with Martinu’s Second and Hindemith’s Fifth (the latter not broadcast); in between came Marcelle Meyer playing Stravinsky’s Serenade for piano, Hindemith performing his Op. 25, No. 1 and Meyer playing Nicholas Nabokov’s Sonata. Soon after that, Hindemith himself 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 keep his eye on the main game, which for him was always composition. In Berlin he founded a string trio with Josef Wolfsthal (replaced on Wolfsthal’s early death by Szymon Goldberg) and Emanuel Feuermann. Amar and Frank formed a piano trio with Frank’s wife Luise.

In a mere eight years of life, the Amar Quartet did much. Not the least of its achievements was to provide Hindemith with a valuable laboratory in which he could experience some of his music in performance, study other men’s works in depth and thereby hone his craft as a composer. It also gave him an environment into which he fitted naturally. It has to be said that one listens to Hindemith’s own playing in order to hear a great musical personality and a penetrating interpreter rather than a great string player as such. In his time Frankfurt was not a progressive centre of string playing and his training was essentially that of a 19th-century violinist, adapted to the viola. Like other great musicians of his era­ Huberman comes to mind­ he never came to terms with modern attitudes to vibrato. Hence the somewhat angular aspect of his playing. In the string trio 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 performances on this disc 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 who is used to the readings of the Mozart and Beethoven works by, say, the Busch or Smetana Quartets will find a lack of nuance here. And yet, if the listener is patient, much will be gained by attending to this no-frills approach.

Bartók in Egypt with Hindemith
Bartók in Egypt with Hindemith

The Bartók performance is particularly interesting because it was the first recording of a quartet by this composer ­ and almost the first recording of any work by him. So there was no ‘tradition’ to guide the players. Here one senses that Amar, with his Hungarian 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 other composers, among them the pernickety Schoenberg, expressed themselves satisfied with Amar performances of their works. These three recordings of 18th, 19th and 20th-century classics have been absent from the catalogue for too long and it is good to have them back. – Tully Potter

Thanks to Giselher Schubert, Oliver Davies and Allan Evans.