MUSIC : A useful man to have around

Hindemith the Rebel Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture
Marking the centenary of Paul Hindemith's birth, the BBC's splendid weekend of Barbican concerts and recitals offered a long-overdue opportunity to hear again the work of a composer who once shared the modernist limelight with Schoenberg, Stravin sky andBartok, but has now gone out of fashion.

Covering both his iconoclastic, experimental early days, his neo-baroque first maturity (when much of his pioneering Gebrauchsmusik, or "utility music", for amateurs and children was written), and the noble serenity and compositional virtuosity of his final period, this all-encompassing mini-festival must have shamed many into re-examining their response to this life-enhancing genius.

At the heart of the weekend were concert versions of the three one-act operas which earned Hindemith his early reputation as a rebel. Composed between 1919 and1921, they have usually been seen as wild oats that had to be sown before the composer could forge a rounded personal style, but these performances proved that, despite their expressionist extravagances, they possess in their brilliant colour, dramatic urgency and teeming invention an integrity all their own.

The satirical comedy Das Nusch-Nuschi, marvellously performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis with 16 fine soloists, mocks fin de siecle styles and attitudes, but the other two operas, lacking that characteristic element of detachment, plunge into the expressionist maelstrom. Sancta Susanna, featuring a sexually repressed young nun who strips the loincloth off a statue of Christ, can still generate the most highly charged emotion (as Yan Pascal Tortelier proved, conducting

an impressive BBC Philharmonic and some outstanding soloists), while Morder, Hoffnung der Frauen, which sets Kokoschka's impenetrable drama of sex and sadism, offers a sumptuously atmospheric and post-romantically tensed score.

But the series also recalled the glories of Hindemith's final phase: the Concert Music for piano, brass and harps with Peter Donohoe, Cello Concerto with Mischa Maisky, Violin Concerto with Ulf Hoelscher and suite Nobilissima Visione are revelatory in maintaining serenity in the face of life's shadows. These were enhanced by brilliant performances by the London Sinfonietta under Markus Stenz of four of the earlier Kammermusik pieces, with pianist Joanna MacGregor, violist Paul Silverthorne and violinistThomas Zehetmair on scintillating form.

There were also two significant pieces of Gebrauchsmusik: Ploner Musiktag, a forerunner of today's outreach schemes, comprising four short programmes to be played during a day-long school music festival; and a score for the silent film, In Kampf mit dem Berge, given its UK premiere by the London Sinfonietta. The seriousness with which Hindemith approached such utilitarian tasks was evident, strengthening the impression of a great artist who was both craftsman and visionary.