Hindemith Cello Sonata, op. 11 no. 3

performed by Torleif Thedéen and Roland Pöntinen, or below by Kevin Kunkel, cello, Yejin Noh, piano

(cover image by Elias Schupmann)

I hope you read Tuesday’s article.

Hindemith’s op. 11 is a set of six (some places incorrectly list it as five) sonatas for stringed instruments. On Tuesday, we discussed the first of this set, a sonata for violin in E-flat. In fact, three of the six works in that set are sonatas for violin, the last, no. 6, for solo violin.

The set was completed while Hindemith was serving on the Western front in the German army. The violin sonata’s qualities may likely be a result of that, but the sentiments of today’s work, completed a bit later, in 1919, are almost assuredly a response to the war, which was by this time over. The work, also in two movements, plays for about 20 minutes, double the length of the previously-discussed violin sonata, and while that work perhaps suggested turmoil or unsureness, today’s work is far more outright.

It’s a nervous, spinning work, as evidenced by the opening alone, making constant use of small intervals and chromaticism, with the cello and piano dancing around one another in an almost literally dizzying manner for much of the opening. This first movement is longer than the entire first violin sonata, and the result is that it’s a little exhausting.

That’s no criticism; it powerfully communicates what one assume a post-war cello sonata would likely communicate. The spinning only comes to a stop to introduce the second subject of the sonata, which doesn’t give any respite, but only changes the manner of the frenetic energy. It’s still busy, with almost unnerving repeated notes and a nervous quality. Patsy Morita, writing for AllMusic, describes the nuts and bolts of the struggle that we hear unfold in this first movement, using words like “uncomfortable” and “obsessive.” Throughout all of the motion and development of this movement, contrast is paramount, with cacophonous fortes and uneasy but sometimes still grating pianos.

What stays with me, though, is the sense that despite the sense of chaos, there’s still a motivic structure and continuity that would make Brahms proud if he could stomach everything else in this work. It’s certainly intense, and sounds a bit like a German foregleam of the kind of emotional rawness that Prokofiev and Shostakovich would later exhibit.

The first movement with its two parts almost ends with a heartfelt, sobbing close from cello, but the piano doesn’t let it end there, and there’s a climactic coda of sorts, ending instead with what sounds like nails being driven into our ears.

Thankfully, the second movement begins slowly, but it’s the eerie lyric quiet, again, like we’d later hear from Prokofiev or Shostakovich, an uneasy lyricism, and still like those Russian composers, this lyric theme (d)evolves into a march, and it’s these two ideas that make up the ‘langsam’ part of the movement. The first theme is much sweeter when it returns. Is that even the same theme?

The ‘sehr lebhaft’ part of this movement (“very lively”) is just that. Listen for the cello’s transition to this. Morita says it’s “built from a piece of the second theme of the Langsam and seems to satirize both the Viennese waltz and the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.” I certainly hear the association to the earlier part of the movement, but not so much the other stuff.

Regardless, this work, a very hard-edged piece, carries a lot of weight. I keep going back to folks like Shostakovich to describe the kind of rawness and almost overwhelming violence and in-your-face-ness that this work conveys, but it’s not a late, mature work. We’re yet very early in the composer’s career, but I find this two-movement sonata, straightforward as its two movements are, to be quite a compelling work.

You can appreciate it for its thematic elements, its form, continuity, all that, or even the very curious way it ends, but on a more basic level, without program notes or any background, the feeling of the piece is unmistakable. There was a later revision of this work, which I assume is what we’re hearing recorded, where a bit of the wildness is reeled in, but it’s a compelling piece even if it isn’t hailed as one of the masterpieces of the cello repertoire.

But that’s the benefit of making an effort to dig around and see what you can find, isn’t it, of not only relying on what’s most commonly placed in concert or recital halls? Go do a little musical excavating every now and then. You may find something very interesting.

Unfortunately, that’s all we’ve got from Hindemith for now, but we have yet three more composers who are getting the same chamber treatment as we’ve given to Brahms, Grieg and Hindemith so far, so please do stay tuned and thank you for reading.

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