The lure of Hindemith, lo and behold, nearly filled out the 2500 seat Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig on January 9, where Daniele Gatti conducted the vagabond Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (lobbying hard and busily for a deserved concert hall of their own) in the Konzertmusik op.50, sandwiching Richard Strauss’ Piano Concerto and the Mathis der Maler Symphony. Finally a Wagnerian chocolate on the pillow: The Meistersinger Prelude to chuck the audience back into the street with a bit of easy listening.
Indeed, the enthusiastic and enthusing, loosely reigned performance of it (not unlike Gatti’s in Salzburg last year, but not as tight and rollicking as the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and Philippe Jordan did it then and there), sent the audiences home with a sense of elation and C-majorly jubilation. Depending on how you look at it, it was either an oddly insubstantial ending to a serious program, or a brilliant bit of programming in which each work was made to be a little easier on the ears than the previous.
Angular and a bit ungainly, the brassy Konzertmusik struck the Boston Globe critic at the Serge Koussevitzky-commissioned premiere as “a masterpiece”. It is not a masterpiece as we’ve come to understand the term, but it does grow on you after a while. It develops tendresse in the slow interlude of the second of its two sections and sensual cohesion for the last few gratifying minutes. Whether the mediocre acoustic in block G of the Philharmonic Hall was to blame, or a BRSO uncharacteristically out of sync, was hard to tell.
Rudolf Buchbinder is so very closely associated with Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn, that whenever he performs a work not by these classical era composers, there is an instinctive—probably unfair—raising of the eyebrows. Strauss’ Burleske, meanwhile, is so off the beaten path, it would astound coming from anyone but Marc-André Hamelin, even though Buchbinder has actually recorded the work early on his career (with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Vienna Philharmonic, available on DVD). All the more welcome, to be regaled in this difficult and slightly awkward Glen Gould favorite… which makes much more entertaining listen than the scarcity of performances suggests. It’s immature Strauss, heavy on Brahms but already with Till Eulenspiegel sitting on the piano bench with half a cheek. Just a few more soli- and melody parts (!) for the timpanist would have made the Burleske go down as a double concerto for piano and timpani. Gatti and Buchbinder seemed to enjoy the work, but not as much as the BRSO’s timpanist on duty.
Hindemith stripped himself of any aspirations to be the face of new music that he once was for a New York Times article by Alfred Einstein in 1930. Mathis der Maler—and especially the symphony that Hindemith culled from the operatic score—is no longer thorny, not abrasive, and not sparse. It coddles the ears, and perhaps it was also meant to accommodate the new regime’s aesthetic (which did not approve, in any case, and accused Hindemith of “Cultural Bolshevism” instead.) It certainly succeeds in accommodating audiences, though—and does so to this day. People may not listen to Hindemith in general, but they will listen to Mathis der Maler. It’s easier to listen to still than most Shostakovich and exudes the air of Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina in its organic channeling of early music within a late romantic guise. The orchestra’s precision and the liveliness that Gatti brought to it furthered the effect of the symphony to make it a loudly approved hit with the audiences.