The string quartets of Paul Hindemith are under-represented in the concert hall and on recording, despite being composed with chamber-conscious textures equally refined as those of Haydn or Beethoven, and of elevated musical substance. Hindemith was a quartet player and (contrary to many celebrated quartet composers of the 20th century) knew the medium from the inside. He mastered the requisite refined and subtle textures characteristic of chamber music; indeed he may have been our last great quartet composer.
The Amar Quartet has begun a new cycle which should stretch over three CDs. Volume 1 contains two of Hindemith's best quartets, Op. 10 and 16. The F minor (Op. 10) benefits from moderate tempos for the first and third movements, especially effective in the Finale, which allows for a wonderful contrast when the Amar finally let loose in the coda. The effect of a movement, which desperately wants to explode, being held back until the end is immensely gratifying. In the central Variations movement, the Amar aptly juxtapose the radically different guises (in rhythm, tempo, even the nature of sound production) of the theme. They provide lucid textures, varying vibrato production and display a carefully modulated blend. Hindemith's often awkward phrasing is adeptly handled, and the marvelously Romantic subsidiary themes of the first and last movements are appropriately sumptuous (read: gorgeous!). Of special note are the fugal passages - the beginning of the first movement's development section follows Hindemth's instruction to be "completely listlessly, numb" to an uncanny effect (very Haydnish), and the finale's wonderful slow section fugato brings to mind the opening fugue of Beethoven's Op. 131. In both polyphonic passages, the intrinsic quartet texture is retained and sensitively realized by the Amar. This is mouth-watering stuff if you love quartets.
Op. 16 is a quartet of intensity and drive, and of almost overwhelmingly searing sound, often high in the instruments' registers. The interaction of the musical material among the players is stunning, and repeat listenings reveal endless felicities. Though the ensemble's blend is spot on, one cannot help but single out the heavenly tone of Peter Somodari's cello in this performance, which sings. Even though one might regard this work as more avant garde than Op. 10, it is traditional in its phrasing and thematic structures, rhythm, and conversational style; however, in its harmonic language it is pure Hindemith, pure 20th century. I have never heard it performed better.
Competition isn't exactly stiff for this rep - a complete set by the Danish is well performed (if a bit uneven) but the recording quality is unimpressive; another by the Kocian is middling. One-offs by the Sonare and Julliard are enjoyable but leave room for improvement. There are several others of Hindemith's quartets included on CDs matched with other composer's works which have received lukewarm reviews. Thus a new complete set (assuming this high standard is maintained throughout) is most welcome. I can't wait to hear their Op. 22, perhaps my favorite of his seven works.
The program notes are excellent and thorough, and the sound is spectacular - clear, present and with just the right amount of chamber-like presence. This is a most auspicious beginning. Urgently recommended.