What is it with Hindemith? His Fourth String Quartet, Op.22 is a first-rate piece, at times beautiful, moving, bracing, brilliant, scary and fun. Though composed in 1921, it sometimes sounds strikingly like the Shostakovich of the fifteen quartets. As Shostakovich has been the New Mahler for the last decade or so, perhaps Hindemith could soon become the New Shostakovich and sweep the airwaves and concert halls of the world? Probably not (though fingers crossed).
The first violin opens the quartet with a satisfying melodic line, melancholic in character. This is the opening gambit in an anxious, lyrical fugato into which Hindemith's early Expressionism soon intrudes, forcing the fugato aside. It returns, however, over a treading bass before singing to itself in a sad duet. This is bleak but beautiful music, not wholly remote from the elegiac side of his contemporary, Bartok - or of Shostakovich.
Assertive chords signal a shift to fast stamping music - a savage scherzo, scurrying and slashing, with a whirling sense of melody. For the trio section, the texture thinks to a violin's nervous melody dancing neurotically over a quickly-rocking accompaniment. Others join in. This splendid music grows ever more compelling. Eventually things slow down and melt into shadows, but the whirling melody awaits, cranks itself up and spins off again. A brief elegiac pause for thought leads to a final frenzy.
The central movement is a muted affair - literally! - with whispered melody sounding over a muffled pizzicato accompaniment. The music is vaguely march-like in character. The melody (which winds its way through the voices) is winning, with a captivating and wholly individual lyricism. A very fine movement.
The fourth movement storms in. The mutes are off! It's another savage, whirling scherzo - exhilarating and brilliant. This is paprika-rich stuff. We then pass briefly through a contrapuntal passage, entering the world of the neo-Classical Hindemith to come, taking us straight through into the thoroughly enjoyable rondo finale - a lively, folk-flavoured movement whose anticipation of the later Shostakovich is truly uncanny.
Moving forwards some 25 years and we arrive at Shostakovich himself and his Third String Quartet in F minor. Composed in the immediate aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, this dark quartet follows in several of Hindemith's footprints.
The first movement Allegretto opens with a jaunty air - its theme a typically wayward Shostakovich tune over a very simple accompaniment. The neo-Classical style comes with a whiff of satire but with the secondary material darker thoughts arrive and in the development section's dour (but exciting) counterpoint nerves might be set jangling - they certainly should be by the scream of dissonance at its climax from which the recapitulation springs. The coda is a hurtle to the end, with a cock-snooking conclusion.
The second movement Moderato deepens the darkness with one of Shostakovich's machine-like accompaniments underlying a flighty fiddle tune, making it into a dead-eyed waltz. This danse macabre continues with new tunes and new accompaniments but the tone is maintained. Listen out for the strange pizzicato passage (which thirds clenching their teeth above them). Weirdly compelling, it finally yields way to tragic utterance.
With the third movement Allegro we are in the familiar world of the savage scherzo. Shostakovich's opening chords bark like prison guard-dogs and their rhythms underpin the first of the movement's Russian-sounding tunes (along with faster ones). Its trio section doesn't depart from the pattern - or the mood, with teeters between menace and hysteria.
The Adagio is (of course! - as this is Shostakovich!) elegiac and (also of course!) bleakly beautiful. Unison passages of grim intent begin by alternating with individual lamenting voices. The melodies of each penetrate each other and a funeral march begins, using them poignantly. Shostakovich's melodic writing is especially strong here.
The long Finale begins veiled in mystery but soon engages us with an enigmatically smiling violin melody. A second follows. Again the accompaniments are kept fresh. The next such tune belongs to the cello and has something of the circus about it (a clown's painted-on smile?). It becomes a duet and is disquietingly charming. After all this melody-driven writing comes some development and a tensing of the nerve-strings. A scary climax arrives and is prolonged, with the opening theme from the Adagio returning at the point of greatest stress, its companion following. The movement ebbs into the lament of a single voice and then silence. Quietly the Finale's own themes return in a muted recapitulation before themselves ebbing onto a single voice's enigmatic, ethereal last song.
Though the magnificent Shostakovich quartet is more Romantically expressive than the no-less-magnificent Hindemith quartet, it seems to me to be in a clear line of descent from it. Does it to you?