MUSIC / Records: Key details and mere technicalities: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson chew over some potentially indigestible Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Symphony in E flat. Nobilissima Visione.

Overture, Neues vom Tage BBC Philharmonic / Yan Pascal Tortelier (Chandos CHAN 9060)

STRAVINSKY once confessed that he found a lot of Hindemith's music 'as digestible as cardboard', and there would be plenty who would agree with him today. But while the numerous sonatas and small chamber pieces survive largely as material for students to cut their technical teeth on, a handful of orchestral pieces - particularly from the periods just before and just after Hindemith left Nazi Germany - have kept a hold on the repertory, and deservedly so. There is more to the ballet suite Nobilissima Visione than calm, stately progress: echoes of Bach and Bruckner (not only in manner) in the Introduction, a strongly flavoured, distinctly German pastoralism in the Rondo and, best of all, the sustained uplift of the final Passacaglia.

Yan Pascal Tortelier gets a convincing Hindemith sound from the BBC Philharmonic - sonorous, warm but not too heavy - and if his Nobilissima Visione is not significantly more balletic than any other version I remember, it is supple, expressive and strongly shaped. I like his handling of the Symphony in E flat even more. The funereal slow movement has grandeur and intensity, the long climb to the finale's culminating brass shouts is gripping, and in his hands the first movement manages not to sound like an overscored Neo-Baroque Bierfest. The Neues vom Tage overture is much slighter, but again the performance pitches itself at just the right level. Excellent recordings too. SJ

A LITTLE of the well-tempered Hindemith goes a very long way for this listener. Then again, I could almost make an exception for Nobilissima Visione, the aptly titled offspring of Hindemith's St Francis ballet. The light it sheds, the warmth it exudes, the way in which its classical procedures enrich and ennoble the seemingly ordinary, can but be admired.

It is handsomely attended here in glowing Chandos sound: the opening string meditations roll out meaningfully, the pastorale with its chaste flute solos is strangely touching, and the BBC Philharmonic brass could make Hindemith converts of us all with the fervour of their concluding hymn to the sun. But still there remains a musty aftertaste.

First impressions of the Symphony are positive, too: you can see why Leonard Bernstein took it up. The 'Americanisation' of Hindemith injected a renewing vitality into this hefty score: there is a particularly splendid scherzo, a sort of strident East Coast Bruckner with Mahlerian overtones. But I have grown allergic to the predictable twists and turns of Hindemith's sinuous tunes (the second movement's grey dirge is a classic instance), the stodgy fugues and canons, the over-earnest counterpoints.

As for the overture to Hindemith's 'comic' opera Neues vom Tage, I think it's safe to say the jokes could only get better after that. ES

MOZART: Symphonies 39, 40, 41

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Teldec 9031-74858-2: two CDs)

ONE MAN'S counterpoint is another's inspiration. After Hindemith's strenuous work-outs, what could be more liberating than the contrapuntal euphoria of the Jupiter Symphony's finale? This has to be among the most invigorating accounts of it ever put on disc. Just listen to the horns and timpani triumphantly announcing the momentous coda - truly the culmination of what Harnoncourt plainly sees here as a trilogy.

In the accompanying notes he speaks of thematic and key relationships and 'a continuous dramaturgy of tempo'. He is indeed consistent, if sometimes eccentric, in that respect. In Symphonies 39 and 40 his thrustful, headlong minuets far outpace the ensuing finales: relaxation (and a cheeky line in rubato) is afforded only in Mozart's bucolic trios. Otherwise the tone of all three works is consistently dark and tough. The introduction to No 39 sounds a stern, urgent warning: and some may find it easy to admire but hard to warm to the somewhat unyielding, no-nonsense manner of what follows.

But the drama is in good hands. Harnoncourt is not afraid to lay bare the harmonic daring in the restless first movement of No 40, while No 41 is big on imposing gestures, real capital made of the relationship between silence and declamation in the first movement. The playing is predictably superb (forthright winds and keen, resilient rhythms open up the texture), and of course you get all the repeats, including the classic teaser at the close of No 39, just as you are thinking that Mozart has already slammed the door shut. ES

IT IS A pity that these extraordinary performances could not have been released on disc in time to contribute to the 1991 Mozart festivities. They might have livened up what was on the whole a disappointingly debate-free year. I am tempted to say that there is something to offend every taste: attention-jolting re-readings of familiar phrasing and articulation marks; tempi that sometimes hurtle forward (minuets of Nos 39 and 40 and the 'slow' movement of No 40) but which are just as capable of fluctuating or changing gear completely (all three trio sections, but most unsettlingly in No 40). Then there are the minuet repeats observed after the trios - too much of a good thing even for some of the most devout Mozart enthusiasts.

There is much more to this than controversiality, though. For one thing Harnoncourt has weighty arguments to support everything he does - and more importantly, there is passion and gripping vitality behind almost every gesture. Stress almost: the Andante of the G minor Symphony takes a while to flesh out expressively; but the depth of feeling in the equivalent movements of Nos 39 and 41 will be a salutary surprise for anyone who equates period style-consciousness with superficiality. This is a conductor who is prepared to take risks, and the successes far outweigh the more questionable happenings. Harnoncourt's contrast of ominous, martial Adagio and graceful, dancing Allegro in the opening movement of No 39 has almost operatic vividness, while the mounting energy in the coda of the Jupiter's finale made me want to go back and hear the whole thing all over again - repeats and all. SJ

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