Hindemith may not have been a Schoenberg or Stravinsky, but at his most inspired he was certainly way up there near the top of the heap, among the greatest composers of the late lamented 20th Century. What these recordings tell us, however, and to me this comes as something of a shock, is that he was also a truly great conductor. All the performances in this set are in my opinion truly extraordinary, among the very best orchestral performances I've ever heard -- of any music by any composer of any period.
Everything one would expect of a superlative performance is here, the tempi, the balances, the shadings, accents, nuance, intonation, attention to detail, attention to overall structure, sweep, authority, intensity, even expressiveness (YES, expressiveness!) and passion (yes, passion too).
To get a sense of how remarkable a conductor Hindemith is, listen carefully to the slow movement of Mathis. With tempi this slow (and this is the slowest I've heard for this piece, extremely slow), it's very difficult to maintain interest, not to mention control. However, in the hands of Hindemith and this remarkable orchestra, with whom he's obviously established an extraordinary rapport, the tempo works beautifully and the piece takes on an almost Mahlerian intensity I'd never heard before.
As if this weren't enough, the set contains one of the most remarkable pianistic performances I've ever heard, from Hindemith's composition student, Hans Otte. The "Four Temperaments" begins in typical middle period Hindemithian style, with a statement of the rather steady, bland and predictable theme, but with the entry of the piano for the first variation, all is transformed -- and suddenly we are back in the world of early Hindemith, one of the most inventive and masterful composers since Bach himself. The pianism is simply beyond belief here, just stunning in its verve, precision, virtuosity, nuance and phrasing. With the entry of the piano the piece just takes off, soars into the stratosphere, thanks to composer and pianist both. Otte was hand picked by Hindemith for this performance so possibly what we hear is at least in part due to careful coaching. But it's hard to understand how mere coaching could produce such marvels of nuance and such complete control of the instrument and total musical involvement in passage after passage. If you ever want to inspire a young performer with the possibilities of his art, you would do well to play your student this recording.
As for the more mundane details, even they are all good. The sonics are fantastic for a recording of this vintage, clear, even vibrant, with lots of body and power when called for. The orchestra itself is superb and in perfect rapport with its director. Even the piano selected for these recordings is a marvel, simply one of the finest instruments of its kind I've ever heard.
I know, it's easy to be skeptical in the face of all these superlatives, but I assure you I'm not usually this enthusiastic. These recordings truly are gems, trust me. HAH!