Paul Hindemith: Ludus Tonalis (Decca Eloquence)
In the painstaking task of reading page proofs for my next book, I needed something on in the background that would keep my rhythm going without distracting me with an excess of invention. Hindemith, who else?
The German composer, damned by the Nazis as a dangerous modernist, was never other than a cerebral conservative with an ear for correct form. Exiled to Istanbul, then to Yale, he reduced students to tears with rigorous lessons in theory and any number of ruthless technical exercises designed to make them better human beings.
The 1943 Ludus Tonalis set for solo piano, premiered by Artur Schnabel in Chicago that year, is Hindemith’s attempt at a Goldberg Variations, contrapuntal as a dyspeptic snake, turning this way and that, striking without warning. Like a rattler, you know it’s there but you don’t dare look.
The pianist in this rare recording, reissued from 1965, is the Estonian refugee Käbi Laretei who, in Sweden, became the first wife of the film director Ingmar Bergman. Why she is not better known, I cannot figure. She has technique to spare, and a feel for mood that few piano players can replicate. Laretei treats Hindemith with appropriate austerity, no flirty smiles, no lapses of concentration (dinner at the Bergmans must have been fun). I wish I’d heard her playing Webern.
I’ve had her Ludus in the background all week and, while I can’t pretend to love the work, I can’t help but admire Hindemith’s morning exercises, his oh-so-German devotion to the precise placement of nuts and bolts and Laretei’s unflinching turn of the family screwdriver.
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