Gal recording- day 3

Well, well, well…. Another day, another wonderful piece recorded. This afternoon we wrapped this week’s sessions with a final performance of the Gál Concertino for Violin and Strings. I’ll see the band in 2 weeks when we record the third item on the disc, the Triptych for Orchestra. In the meantime, I’ve got 3 programmes to conduct in the next seven days, so no respite in the sort term….

My friends will know (back me up here!) that I only like drama in my performances, not around them, maybe especially because I’ve had enough working dramas to last a thousand years. Of course, life doesn’t always oblige. Before the first session today a violinist’s instrument briefly went missing- what a nightmare. Thank goodness it turned up quickly. Then, at our break this afternoon the fire alarm went off. As I was leaving the building with my scores I ran into Annette, our soloist, heading out of the building. “Where’s your violin?” I asked.

“It’s probably just an alarm, should I get it?” She replied.

“Yes, absolutely, you should get it.”

I guess once you’ve lost almost your entire library of books and chamber music, most of your furniture, every letter written to you before the age of 30 and hundreds of LPs and a mishmash of vintage guitar amps, recording gear, cycling equipment and what not to a fire, one becomes slightly less casual about it. Not all alarms are for practice.

And let’s face it- they ain’t making any more 250 year-old Italian violins anymore.

Fortunately it was an alarm, and happily, we waited it out instruments in hand.

Once the disc comes out, I think listeners will be struck by the wonderful resolution of an apparent dichotomy- on the one hand, Gál is a composer with an incredibly distinctive voice. On the other hand, it’s quite surprising how different his works are (notably the three on this disc). The Concerto, scored for strings and a small wind section, feels like a pure chamber orchestra piece with pristinely transparent textures and lots of solo work (much of it very inspired!) for the wind players. The Concertino is only for strings, but feels in many places (not all) quite a bit more orchestral. It’s a fascinating piece- the opening is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever worked on. It sounds simple (startling so), but is anything but, and develops organically into a passage of almost transcendent passion. If you love Metemorphosen, you’ll love this movement (there is one passage that sounds almost like a quote from Metemorphosen but was written many  before Strauss’s masterpiece- did Strauss know this work? He certainly knew and admired Gál…)

After this deeply spiritual movement in E-flat major, which feels bigger than it’s modest duration, there follows a jovial Finale based on an ancient Rigadoun theme in G major. The change in mood could hardly be more stunning, and is effected through an epic and rhapsodic cadenza (the cadenza in the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto serves a similar transformative purpose in a very different language). Somehow, Gál manages to make this deliciously frivolous theme serve as a worthy counterbalance to the reverie of the first movement, and even integrates some of the themes of the first movement into it in a most ingenious and exciting way. Somehow, he makes these different soundworlds, different keys and diffent moods come together in an effective way.

It’s quite a challenge to record this music from scratch, since it is music that speaks in a sophisticated way and benefits enormously from time, familiarity and experience. It is also not easy.

The time pressures in a recording project are pretty awe inspiring- when you think of what this all costs and how hard it is to organize, there is a huge pressure to get it right as fast as possible. The danger of that pressure (aside from risking simply not being ready) is to force the performance into a straightjacket too early in the process. Of course, the dream is to get everything right on the first take (I’m very proud of one recording I did that was done in one take and one patch, but that is like hitting a hole in one- as much luck and karma as anything else. It’s got to be the right piece with the right players on the right day). In one’s desire to get a perfect take right away, and in everyone’s desire to finish up and go home to their families, it is easy to forget that the greatest resource in an orchestra recording is the musicality, virtuosity, creativity and flexibility of the orchestral musicians.

After one session each on the first movement and the finale, we had this afternoon’s final session to fix a last few little technical details, but most importantly to try to take the performance to another level by briefly revisiting a few things we’d worked on before. With such a sensitive, virtuosic and flexible orchestra just letting the stew simmer for another wee bit can work miracles. I hope it did in this case, and I hope the time was rewarding for them- it’s easy for a well-intentioned conductor or producer to not know when one has reached the point of diminishing returns. The last 30 minutes of the session I think might have given us some of our best material. It’s in the lap of the gods, or at least on the laptop of an  editing god, now. In the end, we finished 45 minutes early.

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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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5 comments on “Gal recording- day 3”

  1. Pingback: Blog | bandinstruments

  2. Antonio Meneses

    Dear Mr. Woods,
    I’m just now hearing Gál’s violin concerto, which I find to be a great work. I’m myself learning his cello concerto which I will record this coming January with the Northern Sinfonia. Simon Fox will be my producer as well and I’m looking forward to the recording sections. I just wanted to tell you that I found your comments on the works of Hans Gál very interesting and helpful. Congratulations and all the best,
    Antonio Meneses

  3. Kenneth Woods

    @Antonio Meneses
    Maestro Meneses! What a nice surprise to hear from you. The cello concerto is a great piece- I can’t wait to hear what you do with it. As it happens, I’m off to record the 4th Sym with Simon tomorrow. It’s also a tour de force for the solo cellist (it has solo parts for cello, violin, clarinet and flute), then next week I’m recording the two string trios with my cello hat on. So it goes! Anyway- best wishes for the sessions in Gateshead, and I hope we can work together one of these days


  4. Antonio Meneses

    Hi, great to hear from you. By now you might have already finished the recording. Hope it went well and wish you all the best for the trio recordings.

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