Hindemith: Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’ (CD review)

Also, Nusch-Nuschi Tanze; Sancta Susanna, Op 21. Ausrine Stundyte, soprano; Renöe Morloc, contralto; Annette Schönmüller, mezzo-soprano; Caroline Baas, female voice; Enzo Brumm; male voice; Women of the Wiener Singakadamie (Chorus Master, Heinz Ferlesch); Marin Alsop, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.574283.

By Karl W. Nehring

When asked to name some of our favorite symphonies, most of us will immediately begin to think of symphonies by the “usual suspects” such as Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, Sibelius, Bruckner, or perhaps Vaughan Williams. Well, those gentlemen would certainly figure on my list as well, but my list would also include a symphony by a composer who is seldom thought of as a symphonic composer, the German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). His three-movement
Symphony Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter) has long been one of my favorites, now available here in a newly released Naxos recording led by the gifted American conductor Marin Alsop.

For those unfamiliar with this symphony, Hindemith started composing it in 1933 and completed in 1934. He had in mind composing an opera based on the life of the painter Mathias Grunewald (1470-1528), but decided to begin with a symphony, figuring he would later incorporate some of the music into the opera, which he completed in 1935. The cover of the CD booklet features a reproduction of some of the paintings by Grunewald that inspired Hindemith. They are part of an elaborate construction of panels behind the altar at a church in Isenheim, Germany. Various scenes are revealed as the panels are unfolded and from these scenes, Hindemith chose three to represent musically. The three movements are titled Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert), Grablegung (Entombment); Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). You might expect a concert of angels to sound gentle and ethereal, but Hindemith endows these angels with energy and luminosity befitting the celestial realm, and Alsop does a fine job of making the orchestra sing. As you might well imagine from the title, the second movement is much more somber in tone. It is not maudlin, however, as there are reflective passages and dramatic passages, leading without pause into the more dramatic third movement, with Alsop getting the orchestra to play with both precision and power. This is truly an excellent performance.

Music lovers who are already Hindemith fans probably already have a favorite recording of
Mathis. For example, my favorite has long been the Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony Orchestra recording, which, when in comparison to this new Naxos, presents a more powerful, vivid sound (the SFSO brass in particular way outshine their European counterparts) and a more energetic performance overall. Nevertheless, there are a couple of  points to ponder regarding this new Naxos release. First, Alsop’s performance of Mathis really is pretty darned good, and certainly worthy of audition. Second, and perhaps more compelling, Naxos has included a couple of relatively unusual disc-mates that are more likely than not compositions you have not heard before. First up on the program is a brief (10:03) trio of dances that Hindemith extracted from his one-act opera Das Nusch-Nuschi (1921). Admittedly, there is nothing really profound in these brief pieces, but they are lively and entertaining, well worth a listen. Next up is the one-act opera Sancta Susanna, the libretto of which is included in the liner notes. It is a dramatic piece, with plenty of high-powered singing. The music is interesting, but the sheer intensity of the piece may not lend itself well to repeated listening. Music lovers with more fondness for opera might disagree. In any event, it is certainly well played, well sung, and decenly recorded. Kudos to Naxos for releasing such an interesting program and putting forth the effort to include informative liner notes, props to the engineering team for capturing the large-scale forces in full-range, believable stereo sound, and bravo to Marin Alsop and the orchestra, chorus, and soloists for their fine performances of Hindemith’s music.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Writer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa