As I returned to Gateshead for part 2 of my recordings with Northern Sinfonia, I knew I had a lot of hard work ahead. While the first week of the project had been focused on 2 works for violin and orchestra, this week we were tacking a single, major orchestral work- Triptcyh, one of Gal’s last major orchestral works (the Fourth Symphony followed a couple of years later). I believe Gál himself described this piece to family and friends as “like symphony in 3 movments,” but refused to call it a symphony. For this most genre-conscious of composers, perhaps a symphony in 3 movements just wasn’t a symphony?
In some ways, the piece is a summation of his life’s interests and his compositional development. His gift for melody is very much on display, as his astounding contrapuntal virtuosity and his penchant for tricky modulations. The first movement starts with a simple theme in unison for violin and viola which is quickly built into a tapestry of many, many independent voices. It is sometimes dramatic, sometimes quirky and sometimes foreboding. It’s also quite tricky to pull off. Gál begins the piece by laying out an explicit challenge for himself and the performer. The opening unison theme has one very unusual quality- it ends with a very clear arrival on the tonic note, preceded by the dominant. This is a very un-symphonic way of building a symphonic theme. Since the melody itself seems to reach closure and completion within 5 bars, (unlike the classic example of the theme of the 1st mvt of the Eroica, where the theme’s sudden arrival on C# creates so much drama and uncertainty), we can’t help but wonder what the composer expects to do with the them for the next 11 minutes.
As it turns out, the movement is a tour de force of showing what can be done in a symphonic context with a theme that isn’t, on it’s face, symphonic, but it also means there is absolutely no room for the interpreter to get the pacing wrong. As I worked on the piece, I was keenly aware that, in part because the one archival radio broadcast I was able to listen to was completely unsuccessful. It made the piece sound unbelievably static. Again and again, I went through the score and thought “this is a great piece,” and would then have a listen to that broadcast and think “is this a great piece?”
It’s a great piece.
It’s also a really, really hard piece. I don’t think anyone from the band would disagree with me if I say that it’s unusually demanding technically- we had to do a fair bit of careful rehearsing, and some of the passage work really took time to settle for the orchestra. “Strauss under the microscope” was one very good description, but that only speaks to the fact that the writing is very transparent and exposed. Strauss also took pains to write things in keys and registers that were idiomatic to the instruments- for Gál, keys were too much a part of the meaning of the music (each key seems to have its own very strong identity, as in Schubert or Beethoven) for him to shift things around. Likewise, he loved the sound of high brass, low oboes and other slightly unusual registrations.
So, I went into the first session with a belief that we were dealing with a great piece, but with the knowledge that it had never been successfully performed. I also thought it was likely to be hugely challenging to play and conduct.
At the end of the first session, I had a lot more information to go on- I was, by then, absolutely sure it is a great piece and that it can work. I also knew with certainty that the difficulties I’d located were, if anything, far more formidable than I’d expected. Harder to play, harder to conduct and probably harder to record, but with more at stake for all concerned, because the difficulties are worth surmounting. The piece does work, if we live up to it.
Tempering that little bit of dread at the challenges ahead, though, was a certain giddy excitement. My career has not always been a model of being in the right place at the right time, but here I was getting the chance to make the first recording of this substantial, wonderful and challenging piece. Not Colin Davis, not Rattle, not Sideshow Bob. In that sense, I was feeling like the luckiest guy in the business on Sunday night. Repertoire is the ultimate commodity in this business- think of what it means to Davis to have “discovered” Berlioz or Bernstein to have “discovered” Mahler? Is Gal going to be known on the same level as Berlioz? That’s not for us to worry about, I just know that his music is very worth knowing.
We had the band, the hall, the producer and the kit- no excuses for any of us not to get this right.