I'm a little surprised that there has been no review thus far of this classic recording by British composer/pianist John McCabe of Paul Hindemith's piano masterpiece 'Ludus Tonalis' (1942). There have been other recordings of the work -- e.g, Sviatoslav Richter gave us a titanic account recorded live in rural France (complete with birdsong) albeit in inferior sound -- but this is the best I've heard. I didn't much like that by Olli Mustonen who gave it a rather more romantic sound than I would have preferred. And I have not heard the recording by Joyce Hatto, the British pianist in her late 70s who, on her private label, has recorded enormous amounts of piano literature but who only recently burst upon the scene after having withdrawn from the public eye a couple of decades ago. I intend to rectify that omission as I've been impressed with what I've heard so far from Ms Hatto. Nonetheless, I was very impressed when this recording came out in the mid-1990s and remain so. McCabe, perhaps because he is also an accomplished composer, is an analytical player and to my mind that is precisely what is needed in this hour-long collection of fugues and interludes which Hindemith subtitles 'Studies in Counterpoint, Tonal Organization and Piano Playing.' The work certainly does emphasize those three musical qualities. It consists of twelve fugues arranged in keys (or rather tonal centers) whose succession derives from the natural overtone series. They are linked to each other by interludes that modulate from the key of the previous fugue to the key of the succeeding one. All this sounds very dry but in fact it isn't. There is great variation of mood, tempo and form in these pieces. It's not for nothing that Hindemith titled the work 'Ludus Tonalis' ('Musical Game'): there is wit, drama and clever ingenuity here.
On first hearing non-Hindemithians -- that is, listeners who are not familiar with Hindemith's musical language -- might be a bit puzzled or even bored by 'Ludus' but on repeated listening the oyster opens up to reveal a pearl of great beauty. McCabe reveals it without pandering or overemoting.
The CD is rounded out by the inclusion of Hindemith's very early 'Suite 1922,' whose sections are called 'March,' 'Shimmy,' 'Nachtstück,' 'Boston,' and 'Ragtime.' The excellent notes by Robert Matthew-Walker make the point that the older Hindemith was a little embarrassed by these trifles, but at the distance of eighty years they can be valued for what they are: a master's idiosyncratic and ingenious take on popular music of the time.
As usual, Hyperion's presentation is excellent, with a delightful cover (painted by Hindemith himself), marvelous notes, beautiful recorded sound and, helpfully, caputs (the first few notes, in musical score) for the prelude and postlude of the 'Ludus' as well as each of the fugues and interludes. (As I typed that last word I just GOT the point of Hindemith's surely intentional pun -- interLUDES: 'between the games.')