With one exception, which I shall come to, the works on this disc are all early, before Hindemith found his mature idiom. They show him trying out various styles and also from time to time, particularly in the quicker movements, anticipating the vigorous neo-baroque with which he is most associated.
Unfortunately the first work here is much the least interesting. The opening Capriccio is quite entertaining but the following Phantasiestück is much too long, sounding like pastiche Schumann. The final Scherzo is even longer, and doesn’t settle to any consistent style or material. The whole work is unbalanced and really should be regarded as a piece of juvenilia.
Matters rapidly improve with the sonata for solo cello, an interesting contribution to a medium which was quite popular with twentieth century composers. By this time Hindemith has learnt his lesson and all the movements are short, with the whole work lasting less than ten minutes. Two pairs of faster movements surround a longer slow movement. The fast movements are highly virtuosic while the slow one is chromatic in a Romantic rather than expressionist way – Hindemith was still exploring the right way for him. However, this is a fully assured work and a rewarding one.
The Meditation is the exception to this group of otherwise early works. It is a transcription by Hindemith himself from his ballet from Nobilissima Visione (In a most noble vision), on the subject of St Francis of Assisi, which dates from 1938. The complete ballet is rarely performed, though there are two recordings of it, but the suite is one of Hindemith’s most popular works, rightly, since it is very beautiful. This piece exists in various arrangements, including for the violin and the viola as well as the cello. It is nicely performed but a bit out of place in this collection.
The sonata for cello and piano is the most substantial work here. The booklet suggests it was inspired by memories of the First World War and also by a poem of Walt Whitman (“O, now sing over there in your moor”) which he had previously set as a song. Although listed as being in two movements, it is effectively in three, since the second movement begins as a substantial slow movement then moves to a faster final section. It begins with a driving toccata, occasionally broken by passages of anguished lyricism. In the slow section of the second movement march rhythms dominate in the piano while the cello sings a threnody for the dead. The final section is a desperate chase. The whole work is a disturbing and unsettling one, perhaps not completely coherent but impressive nonetheless.
David Geringas is a player new to me, though he has an extensive discography. He has a rich and fruity tone, a bow technique which keeps every note alive for the whole of its length, an expressive speaking quality to his sound and an astounding technique, which he certainly needs for the faster passages in these works. Ian Fountain, with whom he has often worked, is also expert but is hampered by the recording. It is shallow and forward, making the piano sound close to a xylophone when in its highest register. It is the kind of sound which was once thought particularly appropriate to twentieth century music, but one had hoped things had moved on.
The disc is rather short measure and could have fitted in another Hindemith cello work. There are two more of these: the variations on “A frog he would a courting” (I learned this nursery rhyme as “A frog he would a wooing go” but never mind) and the very important 1948 cello and piano sonata in E Op. 38. Both of these have been recorded, in various combinations with some of the works here, though if you want the cello version of the Meditation this is currently your only choice. I would have preferred the 1948 sonata to the Three pieces but I repeat my admiration for the eloquent playing of David Geringas. There is a helpful booklet in four languages.