The tale of two Pauls: they just didn’t see eye-to-eye

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 18.11.2013

Nothing excites music lovers more than the discovery of a previously unknown composition by a dead master.  Such stories are even better if the score has been unearthed from detritus in some isolated farmhouse almost ready for the torch.

All this actually happened 11 years ago when a marvelous piano concerto by Paul Hindemith was rescued from oblivion.

The concerto, Opus 29, is written for the left hand and is now being resurrected in live performances and new recordings, the latest of which is a captivating CD by one of the grandes dames of the piano, Idil Biret, and the Yale University Orchestra under the direction of Toshiyuki Shimada (Naxos 8.573201-02).

The 1923 work, baptized with the rather flat title “Piano Music With Orchestra”, is a welcome addition to the repertoire and will surely become standard fare for major orchestras. It is typically Hindemithian in mood and variation, with its own sense of humor and underlying stream of logic. “Accessible” would be a good word to describe it today although Hindemith warned at the time that even he found it “strange”. 

In the current climate of musical adventure, it seems to fit right in. Autres temps, autres moeurs?

The centerpiece of this concerto is its intriguing piano-oboe dialogue, spiraling through space like an airborne double helix. It is a beautiful love song between the two instruments and it survives multiple hearings without wearying. The simply constructed piano part reads like an exercise in composition rather than a showpiece for left-hand virtuosity. 

The remaining three movements of the concerto follow the usual structure: a slow opening movement setting out main themes, then the piano-oboe display, followed by a scherzo and a finale.

It is hard to understand, with such remove, how Paul Wittgenstein, who commissioned it, could have found it wanting despite his generous commission to Paul Hindemith. The two Pauls were hopelessly at odds. The one-armed Wittgenstein refused to play it, probably because it was too advanced for his romantic tastes, and refused to relinquish his exclusive rights for others to perform it.  Hence it was buried. 

The score, long forgotten, was discovered in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania after the death of Gertrud, Hindemith’s widow, in 2002. An anonymous tip alerted the Hindemith Foundation in Blonay, Switzerland, and negotiations with the estate were fruitful.

Wittgenstein was known to be cantankerous, having tangled with Prokofiev and Ravel over commissions he granted them. As pianist-writer Ivan Ilic notes in a monograph. Prokofiev later questioned Wittgenstein’s talent, saying he might not have been noticed at all if he had not been mutilated in World War I and performed on the world stage as a one-armed pianist. 

Also in this two-CD collection, “Hindemith: The Complete Piano Concertos”, are Hindemith’s “Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps”,  his “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945) and his “Chamber Music No. 2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass, Opus 36 No. 1 (1924). And finally there is the “Theme With Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings (1940).

The Yale recording of Opus 29 is very much the equal of the previous CD, by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra directed by Christoph Eschenbach. And a 2004 “premiere” performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, with Leon Fleischer at the keyboard, also pleased the critics. Fleischer later performed it again with the New York Philharmonic, to crucial acclaim. 

Fleischer, who had suffered from focal hand dystonia, (partial paralysis of his right hand) made a sideline of left-hand compositions during his nearly 30 years of disability. In his program notes at the New York Philharmonic performance in 2007, he wrote that the left-hand work was “one of Hindemith’s best”, although he would not call it a concerto in the modern sense. Other musicologists have classed it as closer to a baroque concerto. 

New York critic Jay Nordlinger wrote after the New York performance, “You can call it a grapefruit, for all I care, but it’s still a concerto, in essence.”

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