At $10.99 to $11.99 (Amazon pricing fluctuates -- I got it for $10.99 then it went up) for two CDs filled with the 7 Hindemith Kammermusik works AND the 1935 viola concerto, Der Schwanendreher, it would be impossible to go wrong. But the Kammermusik pieces are conducted by Claudio Abbado and performed by the Berlin Philharmonic. That's an extra plus. And they're linked with the single best Schwanendreher recording out there, bar none. This is an absolute must for Hindemithians.
For modern mainstream recordings of the 7 Kammermusik, you really need to choose between Chailly and Abbado. It's that simple. I give Chailly (with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) a slight edge (such great soloists like Lynn Harrell and Hindemith expert Kim Kashkashian), and I must confess that part of the reason is that I tend to dislike the stereo imaging of works performed in the Berlin Philharmonie (although Kammermusik 7 for Organ was simply stunning -- for the first time I could hear details, like organ trills, that were muddied up on other versions, while the pedals were room-shaking). Abbado takes things at VERY brisk tempos -- the opening of the 1st Kammermusik is recklessly fast, for example (like Chailly's). This satisfies the instruction to be "wild" but the music starts to become an indistinct blur with such a fast tempo. Versions just a hair slower reveal so much more without loss of excitement.
There are several other contenders for the 7 Kammermusik works. The first recordings on LP were by Concerto Amsterdam in 1968 (Telefunken), and these have been released on CD (at long last) under the Teldec label. I grew up with these (in fact, I wore out my first set of LPs and bought a second), so I regarded them as definitive for years. Dedicated, strong performances in analog sound, digitally remastered in 1998, spearheaded by the legendary cellist Anner Bylsma, still have documentary value. No conductor is credited -- these guys were the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of their day!
On RCA Red Seal, The Ensemble Modern under Markus Stenz gives us the third digital runthrough of the seven concerti, a nice set for completionists (like me) but still eclipsed by Chailly and Abbado. CPO has also recorded all seven works under the baton of Werner Andreas Albert, which can still be acquired by buying the Complete Orchestra Works of Hindemith, Volume 2 (for concertos 1-3) and Volume 3 (for concertos 4-7), totalling 5 and 4 CDs respectively (with MANY more works than just the Kammermusiken on those CDs -- you might as well spring for Volume 1 and get ALL your Hindemith orchestral material at once on 15 total CDs.) Schwanendreher is also represented in Albert's traversal, with Brett Dean on viola. I rate the Dean/Albert version of Schwanendreher as the second best available -- second only to the one on the CD set I'm reviewing here (which, by the way, is NOT conducted by Abbado or played by the BPO, but rather involves David Shannon conducting the Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, with Tabea Zimmermann as soloist).
Thus, there are four digital candidates: Abbado and Chailly being the front runners, followed by Albert and then Stenz. The historic analog performance of Concerto Amsterdam is in a class by itself.
For individual performances, there is one consideration: there IS no better Kammermusik 2 than the one played by Sviatoslav Richter (Moscow Conservatoire Orchestra conducted by Yuri Nikolayevsky) on the Yedang Classics label. So, you really DON'T get anywhere near the best performance of this work if you buy any of the complete sets. Since you also get Bartok's 2nd piano concerto and Stravinsky's Movements for Piano and Orchestra, the Richter take on the Hindemith is worth adding apart from Richter's astonishing Hindemith performance. He alone brings a powerful personality to the work, with independent phrasing and dynamics between the hands, making all other versions seem pale by comparison.
Again, the Schwanendreher here is simply the finest recording made of the work (and I have several against which to compare it). The worst Schwanendreher (muddy, indistinct) is Barenboim conducting the Orchestre de Paris -- abysmal, doing no favors for the soloist (Daniel Benyamini). Dean/Albert are well-balanced and make a suitable 2nd-place finish (although some might rank Blomstedt's 1991 reading with Geraldine Walther and the San Francisco Orchestra as high if not higher than Dean/Albert, but the fugue is handled better in the Albert version -- I just relistened to all three versions to make sure I wasn't relying on unreliable memories). However, the sonic clarity, emotion, and gorgeous dynamics Shannon achieves on CD 2 of Abbado's Kammermusik interpretations reviewed here is a hidden gem of a performance (recorded in 1989) that bests all the competitors. Some of the better LP versions of Schwanendreher never migrated to CD (e.g., soloist Laszlo Barsony, Hungarian State Orchestra conducted by Miklos Erdelyi), so there's no purpose bringing them in for comparison. (Raphael Hillyer's 1970 version on a Nonesuch LP with Watanabe conducting the Japan Philharmonic -- my first version -- is wrongly listed as a DDD recording on its CD release with Albany; for its time the Hillyer version was impressive, but its time has come and gone. Hindemith's own performance as violist with the Arthur Fiedler Sinfonietta, despite Dutton's dedicated engineering and remastering, can't come close to Shannon's version despite the authority of Hindemith's interpretation.)
Bottom line: Because of the Schwanendreher coupling, this is the single best value in Kammermusik sets. Augment with the Richter for a better perspective on Kammermusik 2, and consider Chailly or Concerto Amsterdam as comparisons if you're a Hindemith fan. (Hindemith fans will jump all over the Albert recordings, though -- but at the price of THIS 2CD set, why not add this to your Albert boxes?)