Paul Hindemith is remembered as a prodigious pedagogue, who wrote at least one sonata for every imaginable instrument. Given the breadth of his interests, it is therefore understandable that he composed only three piano sonatas; but it is at least a little remarkable that they were all composed in close succession during the year 1936. This was not a good time for modernism in Germany. Hitler had given himself the title Führer und Reichskanzier following the death of President Paul von Hindenburg on August 2, 1934; and it did not take long for adventurous artists to start feeling the pressure. Hindemith had been working on his opera about Matthias Grünewald, Mathis der Maler; and, in response to an invitation from conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, prepared a three-movement symphony incorporating material from that opera, which was also given the title “Mathis der Maler.” Furtwängler’s performance of this symphony led to his dismissal from the Berlin State Opera. This prompted Hindemith leave Germany while departure was still possible. He moved to Turkey, where all three sonatas were composed.
This establishes a rather poignant context for the first of the piano sonatas, written in the key of A major. Hindemith gave it a title, “Der Main” (the river Main). It was based on a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin of the same name; but it was also a nostalgic evocation of the river that runs through Frankfurt, where Hindemith first established his career as a musician. Probably only by coincidence, the sonata is structured in five movements, just like Robert Schumann’s Opus 97 symphony in E-flat major that evoked the Rhine river. However, there is no other way in which it bears resemblance to anything by Schumann. Nevertheless, within the scope of Hindemith’s highly personalized approaches to both harmony and counterpoint, “Der Main” stands out as the most lyric of the three piano sonatas. The following two sonatas, in G major and B-flat major, respectively, are likely to strike informed listeners as sounding more like his sonatas for other instruments.
At the end of last year Brilliant Classics issued a recording of all three sonatas on a single CD. The album marked the debut of Italian pianist Maurizio Paciariello on the Brilliant label. Those familiar with Hindemith’s work and that composer’s passion for making music with gusto will find gusto in ample supply in all three of Paciariello’s approaches to these sonatas.
It is worth observing that Hindemith never let his “exile” in Turkey interfere with his passion for making music. To the contrary, he devoted his efforts to providing that country, which had only recently emerged as a secular nation-state thanks to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, with a national music education system. One may therefore think of these sonatas as a matter of Hindemith promoting the virtues of making music to the Turkish people. This was probably a factor significant in the success of his efforts there, and Paciariello’s interpretations of the three sonatas present them as admirable representatives of what Hindemith was promoting.