I’ve always favored the theme-and-variations format as a way for composers to showcase their virtuosity and creativity, from Brahms (in the Haydn Variations) to Britten (in his Variations on Frank Bridge). The Hindemith “Metamorphosis” on Weber is another great example of how the interpretive mind can work with a melody and turn it around.
Hindemith’s 1943 composition is infrequently performed and recorded, but is a glorious thing, in full romantic splendor. I recently acquired a wonderful copy of the composer’s own 1950’s Berlin Philharmonic recording, which is — like Stravinsky’s recordings of his own works — rather modest and workmanlike. The romantic impact is downplayed in favor of neoclassical tidyness. Say what one may about composer’s intent.
Georg Szell with Cleveland plays it up a bit more, and the stereo sound packs more of a punch. Szell is precise as always, punching home the finale with memorable panache. I am using a fist pressing Columbia 2-eye; the sound on the CD is a bit dry.
My favorite readings come from Philadelphia, where Ormandy in particular championed the work, recording it multiple times from the early LP era into the digital age and his final years. The Columbia 2-eye (MS 6562) is a favorite of the TAS list for its superb sonics, though I actually prefer his 1979 EMI record (37536). It is fantastic, bristling with energy and verve. The CD transfer loses some of the warmth, as is expected for this era. It’s a pity MFSL never transferred these masters as they did with his recording from the same year of the Sibelius Suites.
Sawallisch, Ormandy’s successor in Philadelphia, has the benefit of outstanding modern sound and a genuinely inspired performance in his 1995 EMI CD (55230). The drama of the final variation is unmatched here and the digital sound as good as it gets. Sawallisch is known as a master of Schumann’s rich textures, and in the fourth Weber variation there are echoes of the Schumann Rhenish Symphony, in its dramatic pauses, soaring and voluptuous crescendos. It is a far different rendition from the composer’s own sparse rendering. And one to treasure!
There are a few other noteworthy records, including a recent issue of a Jochum BBC Live CD with the LSO (1977) which delivers great impact, if lacking the full fervor of the Ormandy or Sawallisch. You can hear the performance
on YouTube here. Tortelier also recorded the work with superb sound for Chandos on CD, as part of his cycle, as did Blomstedt, though neither is that memorable.