PAUL HINDEMITH – String Quartet No. 4

German composer Paul Hindemith [1895-1963] wrote seven string quartets. As I mentioned in my review of SQ No. 1 (July 2016), there is a bit of confusion regarding the numbers of his works as a result of a manuscript of an early quartet being discovered in the 1990’s. Some CDs refer to this as Quartet 0 and some as 1. Other, supposedly complete releases, don’t even include it. I believe I am reviewing what is now generally known as his No. 4!

The quartet is in five movements and opens with a solo lamenting violin, soon to be joined by the viola. I would describe the feeling as gently atonal. The cello enters and the intensity rises for a short time, only to briefly revert back to the original mood. Now comes an aggressive, agitated passage followed by a fade and a brief pause, then a violin meanders wistfully with a walking cello line in support. This is a beautiful piece of writing. The viola returns to add to the ambience. This section lasts for a few minutes and is very attractive. Now a sense of foreboding comes over the work; the violins and viola become slightly darker. The faded ending is very precious.

The next movement opens with a loud section. The violin engages with the dynamics of the ensemble before the mood drops back to a lower volume with a slightly agitated feeling. A pause allows for a solo cello passage which leads the music into a forceful rhythm. The violin again engages in a duel with the ensemble, then gradually moves the music back into a peaceful space. As the end approaches there is a short burst of intensity and the ensemble finishes on a strong chord.

The third movement opens with a cello ostinato which varies its harmony as the passage develops. This has a slightly stately feeling, along with a sense of atonality. The ostinato returns briefly before a pause brings the violins together over a walking cello line. This is a fascinating section as the violins develop a conversational rapport. The ostinato is reintroduced, and the writing for the violins is very expressive. Slowly the intensity rises, only to fall again when the cello goes into half-time, leading to much more space. Now it’s just one violin and the cello, leading to a fade out.

The next, very short movement opens with a strong cello, soon to be joined by the violins. A brief pause leads to the cello conversing with the violins for a few moments and then it’s all over. This is a strange movement. It doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the music.

The final movement is again violin and cello meandering in a slightly atonal passage. Things become very busy and loud. I believe that at the halfway point, we have still only heard violin and cello. Now the viola enters and a frantic mood ensues. Nearing the end, it drops back again to violin and cello. A loud flourish concludes the piece.

Apparently, this is one of Hindemith’s most popular quartets. Although it has many peaceful moments, there are some quite aggressive sections.

No. 4 is paired with the marvellous No. 1 (1990’s) on Naxos so it represents a good introduction to Hindemith. Besides more single CDs, there are also some complete 2-CD sets on Amazon. I think I would lean towards the Danish Quartet on CPO, as it contains the ‘lost’ quartet! The Naxos release is on Spotify and No. 4 can be found on YouTube.

Listenability: A strange mixture of abstract beauty interspersed with agitation.

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