Colin Clarke, Fanfare Magazine, Issue 42:1 Sept/Oct 2018

This is an inspired coupling from two composers who happened to die in the same month (December) of the same year (1963). The booklet notes are intriguing, not for their content but for the illustrations: a cartoon animal, a lion, in various activities (driving what looks like a child’s car, drinking a Stein of beer, hiking in the Alps). Hindemith illustrated the score for his wife’s 50th birthday with lions (for Leo, her star sign) and lobsters (Scorpio is Hindemith’s) and this is a delightful nod to that.

The world of Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis is unique, surely. Zurich-born pianist Esther Walker, a name new to me, is fully inside Hindemith’s exploratory harmonies, her delineation of textures a model of its kind. She sparkles in the extrovert Interludium between the First and Second Fugues just as much as she impresses in the interior ruminations of the “Fuga tertia.” Throughout each fugue is given its own signature: There is no suggestion at all that Hindemith’s language is in any way “flat.” The playing is of the highest intelligence, the intellectual grasp of Hindemith’s processes complete.

It’s interesting, too, how Walker characterizes the Interludia so characterfully, from the Gavotte between the Third and Fourth Fugues to the Pastorale between the Second and Third to the virtuoso Toccata between the Fourth and Fifth. Her performance of the Interludium between the Sixth and Seventh Fugues is light and bright; that between the Ninth and 10th the very model of held-breath control, while the nostalgic Waltz between the 11th and 12th is perfectly judged. The whispered opening to the Postludium seems to invite the listener into the very depths of Hindemith’s psyche in the most striking way.

This is a remarkable performance, and the recording standard is superb (the piano is a Steinway, recorded at Salle de musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland). This rendition of Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis deserves to sit alongside Berezovsky’s colorful affair and Olli Mustonen’s superbly recorded, highly intelligent Decca traversal. Apparently Walker is to record the gamut of Hindemith’s piano music, of which this is the second release; if so, that is a cause for much celebration.

The Hartmann is heard in what is described as Manuscript 2: Composed in 1945, this is the 1947 revision, and so, as in Henze’s 1990s orchestration, there is no Scherzo (Wolfgang Doberlein on Musicaphon follows the same scheme; performances on Naxos by Alison Brewster Franzetti and on Telos by Benedikt Koehlen include the Scherzo and both versions of the finale). The work is of one of mourning, a reaction to his witnessing, in his own words, “an endless stream of Dachau prisoners of war” trudging past him; the “Marcia funebre” is Hartmann’s reaction. The first movement, Bewegt, is dark and foreboding initially: Walker gives it all the space it requires, the chordal structures making their point all the more due to perfect placing. Lighter passages do appear, but seem to be subsumed into the opening atmosphere all too easily. The emotionally draining “Marcia funebre” is perfectly judged here, the fragmentary passages seeming to imply a dissolution of the soul, while the frenetic moments and anguished harmonies seem to reflect the all too human pain around these events. The granitically stark octaves and the glacial high-register responses make for a profoundly affecting gesture. The version of the finale played here (Allegro risoluto) is the more elaborate of the two and alludes to the Overture to Hartmann’s opera Simplicius Simplicissimus (itself a wonderful piece, which received its UK premiere only in 2016 at Sadler’s Wells, a performance I was lucky enough to attend). Walker enables single lines to speak with huge emotion, contrasting with the toccata-like writing elsewhere in the movement and delivered with superb staccato, particularly in the bass register, again beautifully realized by the recording. The close, emphatic but curiously discomforting, reflects the core nature of the piece itself.

This is a superb release on each and every level; not one for the faint-hearted, though. 

© Esther Walker 2013