Pre recording session Gal thoughts

I’m writing tonight from the neighborhood of the Sage Gateshead, home of Northern Sinfonia, where tomorrow afternoon we begin recording sessions for the first-ever disc of the orchestral music of Hans Gál.

(The Sage Gateshead- where Hans Gal is in the house for much of this month)

I promised readers some thoughts about Gál’s music- why it’s wonderful and why it has not been prepared before.

In absence of having our finished disc available for you to listen to, it’s hard to describe Gál’s music- I can only try to reference the music of other composers whose music you may be more familiar with. There is something of the tenderness and harmonic sophistication of late Richard Strauss- think of the Oboe Concerto or the 2nd Horn Concerto. There is the seductive harmonic language of someone like Korngold, but applied with much more structural rigor. There is a constant care for variation technique as in Brahms, and an endless stream of melody, a la Schubert. Finally, there is a profound understanding of counterpoint- his music is not contrapuntal in an academic or conspicuously showy way, but in the truest way. Each part has its own internal logic, its own beginning, middle and end, and its own vibrant and ever changing relationship to the other parts.

When the Violin Concerto, which I think the disc will open with, was written in 1932, his language would have been considered conservative but well within the mainstream. In fact, Richard Strauss was a key early advocate of his music (and those touches in Gál’s music that seem most reminiscent of Strauss’s late style only seem so until you realize Gál came first). However, Gál and Berg were close colleagues- they shared a score review panel, where they were responsible for evaluating the works of many young compsoers, and, in spite of the differences in their own music, they almost always agreed.

(This ain’t no Vert- the lobby of the Sage)

However, after WW II his music was definitely on the wrong side of fashion- Gal had the temerity to live to 97 (he died in 1987). Of course, post-war Modernism was always counter-balanced by a rich stream of tonal music by composers such as Walton, Shostakovich, Copland, Britten and Prokofiev. However, after the death of Strauss, there was seemingly no room for Germanic music (even written by a Jew forced into exile) in a luxuriously tonal idiom that clearly grew out of the great Austro-German tradition. Some of his contemporaries like Goldschmidt suffered the same fate- a sense in which they seemed to be punished for having outlived their moment (of course, had Strauss died in 1911 and Mahler lived until the late 40’s, we’d have a completely different sense of who was the radical and who was the conservative between the two of them). Gál did get some important commissions in Britain, but there was a far higher emphasis placed on native British composers after the war than on championing imigrees.

It’s a pity that we so often define music in terms of style- we pay far too much attention to what language composers speak in than to what they have to say or how magically they say it. That’s a huge topic- certainly worth its own post and then some. Gál’s music had the misfortune of using a language that was considered dated for most of the last 60 years. What we can see now is that has language is as original as Boulez’s, as his message.

Style aside, the other challenge in this music is technical- Gál leave no place for performers to hide. It is uber-exposed writing at all times, completely unforgiving of any imprecision, whether it be of pitch or ensemble. Likewise, his forms, which are incredibly coherent (he has a knack for revealing some miraculously surprising potentiality of a musical idea at just the right moment) are, partially because of the delicacy of his textures, rather fragile. If one phrase dies, or one line collapses, a whole movement can cease to make sense.

It is music that has to “sound” to work, and it is incredibly hard to make it sound. For us, there is the extra challenge in that we are essentially defining what Gál should sound like on record. There is no recorded tradition of his orchestral music. As Simon sets up his mics, the orchestra digs in and starts making sense of their parts and I start rehearsing tomorrow, we’re literally trying to, in very limited time, create a sound world that has never existed on record before. This is what it’s all about for musicians- what a treat!

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Pre recording session Gal thoughts”

  1. Lisa Hirsch

    Thanks, Ken – I want to buy that CD NOW; the music sounds luscious.

    That hall is remarkable, though I wonder what the exterior will look like in 30 years. I hope it gets regular and meticulous maintenance.

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