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Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner

Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner

  • Martin Selbrede posted: 01 Nov at 10:54 pm

    Schott/Wergo’s complete Hindemith project was nudged closer to completion with the release of the last Hindemith opera, heretofore unrecorded. The previous reviewer’s review was comprehensive, to which I hereby refer the interested Amazon buyer for basic details. No point reinventing the wheel.

    There isn’t much in the way of stage action, which means that what stage action there IS is freighted with significance — in fact, ultimate significance for the most part, since family members are literally entering and leaving the stage of life itself (birth and death). The departures are rendered poignantly, but without sappy sentimentality. Death of family in an intimate setting is an intricate thing to pull off musically. It is interesting, in this connection, to note the use of spoken words at the end of both this opera, and a work written a third of a century later, Michael Torke’s “Strawberry Fields.” It’s as if both composers recognized that the story had come to a point where the music had to be stripped all the way back to silence, and the singer to straightforward (albeit emotionally potent) speech.

    Clever harmonic/contrapuntal variations on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” frame this opera. The opening version sets a tone of promise, while the coda version is more deeply invested in emotional profundity without excessive orchestral weight. It works beautifully. The treatment of the cantus firmus is reminiscent of the coda in the finale of Hindemith’s 1962 Organ Concerto, and given that work’s later composition date, it’s easy to discern that the influence flowed from this opera into the later concerto.

    Throughout the opera, we’re drawn (expertly, one might add) into the family drama of which we become, for a brief season, a part. Of note is the beautiful vocal writing for multiple voices on track 8, with a gently insistent orchestral background nudging the melodies forward into ever more beautiful convolutions. Genius.

    Value for the dollar? Well, if we consider that the recording of John Adams’s Pulitzer-prize-winning “On the Transmigration of Souls” has only 25 minutes of music on the entire CD, this one-act opera (at just over 47 minutes) doesn’t seem so bad. Still, the Wergo list price is hefty at over $24, meaning that pound for pound, this CD has substantially the same value as the Adams CD. Are we entering an age of more expensive recordings? If so, will that marginalize composers like Hindemith? Consider that the same conductor who premiered this opera (Marek Janowski) also conducted the world premiere recording of Hindemith’s “Die Harmonie der Welt,” which is a 3 CD set now selling in the low $40 range, new. If that’s any indication, perhaps we MIGHT expect the price to fall on this CD. Then again, maybe not. It took a couple of years for the bigger opera to fall in price. So, time will tell. But if you’re going to acquire this work anyway, why wait? Unless, of course, you’re hoping to see a release in the original English. But I’d suggest that if the German version doesn’t sell, there’d probably be little motivation for any label to bring out an English version of a weak-selling work. Let’s hope, then, that this sells well, since it is uniformly excellent.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  • Nicholas A. Deutsch posted: 02 Nov at 1:49 am

    It’s been a long wait for a recording of Paul Hindemith’s last opera “The Long Christmas Dinner” (1960-61) but it’s been worth it. It confirms what those of us who have pored over the piano-vocal score these many years suspected: it’s a masterpiece, and along with “Mathis der Maler” Hindemith’s best dramatic work. The composer’s collaboration with American writer Thornton Wilder, who fashioned the libretto from his famous 1931 one-act play, was a happy one on both sides, and a successful match-up dramatically, theatrically and spiritually. Only Hindemith’s death in 1963 prevented the pair from collaborating on a projected companion piece based on Wilder’s “Pullman Car Hiawatha.”

    Wilder’s play presents 90 Christmas dinners in the life of an upper-middle-class American family somewhere in the Middle West or West in the form of one continuous meal; flanking the stage are two doors representing Birth and Death, and characters – a total of 11 – arrive and depart as the years roll on. (In the opera, optional doublings of 3 of the roles emphasizes the circularity of family life.) Themes familiar from Wilder’s “Our Town” are much in evidence: the mysteries of passage of time and memory, the obliviousness of the living to the preciousness of each moment of life. The tone, with its combination of the comic (even satirical) and the compassionate, finds an ideal match in Hindemith’s music, which can acommodate both. And Wilder, following the composer’s detailed scenario, reshapes his play into a real libretto, with a good deal of new writing (especially in the “set pieces”) – worthy of study by would-be librettists.

    Hindemith’s score is wonderful, from the prelude which sends “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” through a kaleidoscope of harmonic and orchestral treatments, to the trademark bustling neo-classical idiom (for once ideal to represent the surface energy of every-day life), and to the most affecting and beautiful element in the piece, the ensembles. There is a charming duet for 2 newlyweds, 2 magical trios in which time seems to slow down or stand suspended, and above all the climactic sextet, as a young World War I soldier about to return to the Front (and his death) observes 5 family members as they chatter at their holiday meal. Here Hindemith and Wilder achieve in music something of the profoundly poignant epiphany in the 3rd Act of “Our Town.”

    Hindemith set Wilder’s text in English (as he had Walt Whitman in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”)and made his own German performing translation; what we have here is “Das lange Weihnachtsmahl,” not “The Long Christmas Dinner.” Although the German version is done with skill and sensitivity, and is of course “authentic” (as the booklet puts it), it’s to be regretted that the premiere recording doesn’t use the original English, especially as 2 of the 8 singers are Americans. Let’s hope that someone will follow up with an English-language recording, and reclaim the piece as the “American opera” it is. That said, this is an excellent performance, with fine playing by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski’s first-rate direction, well-cast throughout with attractive voices, and with outstanding work from soprano Ruth Ziesak (Lucia/Lucia II). [My only quibble: given that Hindemith set the name “Lucia” with the accent on the first syllable, shouldn’t it be pronounced “LOO-see-uh” rather than “LOO-chee-uh”?] Complete libretto in German, English & French.

    Highly recommended.

    Rating: 5 / 5

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