German composer Paul Hindemith [1895-1963] wrote seven string quartets. Opus 2 – SQ No. 1, sometimes called No. 0 was only discovered in 1994. My ‘complete’ set of the composer’s quartets by the Kocian Quartet was unfortunately recorded before this date and therefore does not feature the piece. I was just so disappointed. I shall be discussing it from a different, single CD. It has one of the finest openings in the chamber music repertoire. It’s up there with the opening of the Felix Mendelssohn Octet in terms of its vigour.
It is a four-movement work, quite long at just over 40 minutes.
The opening to the first movement is pure joy. It has such a forward propulsion and an oh, so joyous a melody as you will find. Hindemith works with this melody for about two minutes before he introduces a new theme. There is a persuasive motif that the composer feels bears repeating. The movement moves into another section which features a recapitulation of the opening theme. It’s wonderful to hear it again in a long restatement. A new theme develops and we are treated to another set on variations on the opening theme. New melodic themes fly by, recapitulations occur and the momentum is sustained. A quiet passage brings with it introspection. All the while you can sense the opening theme as the composer applies multiple sets of variations to the opening material. The brisk tempo mostly continues throughout the whole movement. Another recapitulation occurs; I can never get enough of it! A slow section brings forth a particularly brilliant melody. The tempo lessens for a moment and the change produces another new melody. A previous theme is reintroduced, and again there is hint of the opening theme. Hindemith is determined to sustain the tempo and to introduce multiple sets of variations. The final moments are reflective as he leads the movement to a satisfying end. I just love this movement. I think it is one of the finest in the string quartet repertoire. What a wonderful discovery it must have been in 1994!
The second movement, marked adagio, features a very quiet and beguiling theme. The cello and the first violin dominate over an extended melody. Eventually the theme builds and breaks into a moderate tempo with a new melodic line. This is a charming section. I can hear hints of melodies from the first movement, but they are never resolved. A slow passage occurs, with the solo cello reaching the bottom of its range. The violin returns with a wonderful melody that just seems to go on and on. The ensemble builds a feeling of great strength, very resolute. Then the movement drops away, leaving the violin to sketch out a sombre melody, backed by the cello. This is a marvellous section, sparse, understated and stately. As the theme develops, the ensemble returns and fills out the music, giving it a grand feeling. The violin soars and works at sub-themes from the first movement. As the second movement winds down, there is another return to material from the first movement as it quietly fades away. I had never noticed it before but these first two movements are inextricably linked.
Movement three opens with a skittish section, led by the violin. The dynamics change to a lower level, but the feeling is sustained. The cello enters and dialogues with the violin. It becomes quite chaotic in a pleasant way. This gives way to a slow passage, where the violin and cello are predominant. This is a fascinating section, with a lot of intertwining of lines. The opening feeling returns, as the violin struts its stuff, with interjections from the ensemble. Then it stops, just like that.
The fourth and final movement begins in a jovial mood, very playful. The violin sets a breakneck pace as the ensemble attempt to keep up. After a while, the intensity drops but the feeling continues. This a celebration! The first violin prevails. I notice a theme from the first movement in the cello, very subtle. Then the violin quotes openly from the same movement. It continues to dominate, almost in a frantic but not frenzied manner, constantly moving the music forward. More recapitulation occurs. Hindemith certainly gets value from his melodic material. The violin leads the movement to a graceful conclusion.
This is a terrific string quartet. My review copy, Paul Hindemith: String Quartets, Vol. 3, on the Naxos label and performed by the Amar Quartet also contains String Quartet No. 4, arguably Hindemith’s most popular quartet.
Listenability: One of my favourite string quartets. Very long and worth every second.