Robert Matthew-Walker, Fanfare Magazine, Issue 42:1 Sept/Oct 2018

Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis is, without question, one of the greatest compositions for solo piano of the 20th century, though you might ask of many pianists before you find one cognizant of the work itself, such is the unaccountable neglect this master composer’s music has suffered since his death 55 years ago.

The combination of feeling and intellect, of emotional expression and formal control, are inherent factors in Hindemith’s total creative mastery. They are qualities of the rarest kind in any composer’s creative make-up, which is why so much worthless junk is perpetrated by those today who can write music but who are not composers, in the same sense that being able to write a letter does not make one an author; in Hindemith’s case, however, his genius ensured that he committed nothing to paper that was not infused by the qualities of genuine artistic creation.

When the general music-loving public at large will come to recognize Hindemith as a great composer is anyone’s guess, but it depends on the one characteristic all music must have: public performance, which may not wholly be in front of a paying audience but made available to listen to—which is where, of course, commercial gramophone recordings come in. Any pianist today (outside, perhaps, of a university audience) who programs Ludus Tonalis is asking for box-office trouble, but it doesn’t always have to be like that. Starting with those pianists who a) understand the inherent nature of this work and b) possess the technical adroitness to perform it publicly (either live or on disc), one feels that human inquisitiveness will eventually see this composer’s genius recognized for what it is—a very wide and expressive output of music, reflecting the many varieties of the human condition through art which should belong to everyone, of every generation, once one can cut a way through the myriad teeming world of modern-day mere fashion to arrive at the verities of our individual and corporate existence.

Not that Ludus Tonalis attempts to speak directly to the human heart; it is, quite clearly, an intellectual experience first and foremost, no fewer than 25 individual yet interconnected movements demanding of the listener a sense of concentrated attention which recognizes the deeper experiences that music can convey. This is no “easy listening” cop-out, a watered-down musical Disneyworld, neither is it invariably demanding of an audience that they imagine they are witnessing the musical equivalent of a pious sermon. Hindemith’s expression is so wide-ranging, so wholly in command of his unique combination of feeling and intellect that, for example, in the Fuga 8 in D he writes wholly contrapuntal music in accordance with demonstrably Bachian laws but in a manner whereby the humorous nature of the music causes attentive listeners to smile knowingly at the joke being played on them.

Any self-respecting pianists whose musical educations have caused them to bypass this masterpiece must, in their search for personal artistic fulfillment, get to know this work, though not necessarily as a totality. Like the “48” (or, for that matter, the “32”), Ludus Tonalis has many individual parts which can be extracted and studied at one’s own pace, from the brilliance of the Interludium of No XVII to the concluding Fuga 12 in F♯ and Postludium (this last, a fantastic piece of the subtlest compositional quality, puts very many established composers’ works in the shade).

In this superb and technically fine recording, Esther Walker presents this work in a manner of which I feel certain the composer would have enthusiastically approved. Her part-playing and technical command are exemplary, her intellectual control absolutely right, so that one comes to the end of the journey intellectually fulfilled and emotionally nourished—and not a little humbled by the towering achievement of the work overall. It’s not a question of size, for Ludus Tonalis overall is no longer than, say, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony; it is a question of what is said, what is conveyed musically, by the living organisms in time which make up the totality of the music. It is, perhaps, that final Postludium which crowns Ludus Tonalis, a demonstration of creative genius that would have earned Hindemith the praise of J. S. Bach himself; one can readily imagine the Lawgiver himself smiling at his pupil’s concluding bars, secure in the knowledge that the eternal verities of music have not shriveled up or been destroyed by the passing of the centuries.

Esther Walker, having earned our praise through her account of Ludus Tonalis, goes on to further our appreciation by way of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Second Sonata, where the appended date gives some indication (to those who know their 20th-century history) of what to expect—it marked (according to the composer’s note) the date on which, a few days before World War II ended officially in Europe, Hartmann witnessed a long tragic line “of Dachau prisoners of war trudge past us—unending was the misery....” In Hartmann’s musical syntax, the music sits comfortably alongside Hindemith, whose influence is palpable, but not in any “copying” sense: Both composers may utilize the same “language” in terms of style, but Hartmann’s expression is wholly genuine, and his alone—especially in the phenomenal finale to this almost wholly neglected masterpiece.

There are, in fact, two finales: Hartmann apparently rewrote the original, and it is the second version that Esther Walker plays here. Not having heard the earlier, I doubt if it could have made a stronger impression than the second—at least, in Walker’s hands. For those pianists who seek worthwhile 20th-century music and who are able to drag themselves away from Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Bartók, and Ligeti, Esther Walker’s magnificent account of this piece may well come as a revelation. Her playing is superb, especially of the wry coda to the finale.

As a totality, this disc represents a considerable achievement on the pianist’s part, but she has been poorly served by the record company in terms of presentation, whereby too much leeway has been granted to the company’s graphic designer. To print brown lettering in a smallish type-size on a wholly black background is nonsense—the information is virtually unreadable, and in the absence of a give-away magnifying glass it makes the imparting of important information an unnecessary task on the reader’s part. In any event, the choice of colors—as in an invitation to a funeral—is at odds with the inherent nature of the music itself. This is, as I hope to have indicated, an important record which deserves much better and more artistically suitable packaging that it gets here; it’s almost designed to put potential listeners off, which I am sure was not the intention. 

© Esther Walker 2013