Amazon review: Gal Triptych and Violin Concerti

There’s a perceptive new review of the Gal Violin Concerti and Triptych disc at Amazon.

“5.0 out of 5 stars Hans Gál’s music finally receives the recognition it deserves…, 13 Nov 2010

By J A Peacock for Amazon

Hans Gál was born just outside Vienna in 1890 and achieved significant success in interwar Germany as a composer and as an academic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his musical style is deeply indebted to that “Grand Tradition” of Viennese art music and Brahms is a palpable influence in his earliest works; although he later went on to develop a very personal idiom it was one that nonetheless remained firmly allied to tonality (albeit applied in a highly sophisticated manner) and melody. Forced to emigrate on the accession of the Nazis to power, he was to settle in Scotland and taught at Edinburgh for much of the remainder of his long life. His subsequent reputation in his adopted homeland as a scholar and musicologist has somewhat overshadowed his compositional activity but recently record companies have begun to accord his music the attention it surely merits.

The violin concerto that opens this programme dates from 1932 and is an immediately appealing work with its beautiful lyrical writing. The lucidly argued opening movement in particular has a wonderfully mellow atmosphere – this isn’t a display piece that plays to the gallery – and that is reinforced by the prominent and extremely grateful scoring for the woodwind. Throughout Gál orchestrates with a light touch and his textures have an admirable and refreshing clarity to them. The subsequent movement, labelled `Arioso’, occupies a similar sound world, although occasional shadows move across its landscape; it leads directly into the concluding `Rondo’, a movement that combines puckish wit with fulsome lyrical episodes that build upon the tone set in the earlier movements. At half an hour in duration this is a substantial and impressively cohesive score, deeply satisfying and fully deserving of a place in the concert repertoire.

The `Triptych’ that follows is a much later work, hailing from 1970, yet the essentials of Gál’s style remain; the subtitle, `Three Movements for Orchestra’, belie the scale of the work, its closely argued progress resulting in a symphony in all but name. Polyphony is a staple of Gál’s working method and his mastery of contrapuntal writing is often on display here. Perhaps some of the thematic material is a little more angular than in the concerto, resulting in an occasionally harder edged tone – there is an occasional harmonic astringency that underlines that mood, which contrasts with the relaxed atmosphere of the concerto of forty years earlier, but these elements are balanced by the application of his innate gift for long lyrical passages, a warmth of expression that is often quite moving. The central `Lament’ again makes effective use of the woodwind, with some particularly lovely passages for clarinet – as a whole the movement is less grief-stricken than its title would suggest but it is no less successful (indeed, perhaps it is even more so) in its import for Gál’s understated expressive means. The boisterous opening bars of the final `Allegro con spirito’ make for a startling contrast at first, though the song-like return of the clarinet at just under a minute and a half in reinforces the emotional connections between all three movements. The finale is titled `Comedy’ and it rounds the work off in cheerful fashion, having displayed an impressive variety of mood and orchestral texture during its course.

With the concertino for violin and orchestra, op. 52, we return to the inter-war years although, dating from 1939, the work was written at the beginning of Gál’s exile from Austria. The work was neither performed nor published until after the war, unsurprisingly given the strain the Gál family were under during that time (which included internment in a British camp for Austro-German residents and the tragic suicide of Gál’s younger son, Peter). The almost pastoral opening bars of the work give little suggestion of the dark clouds hanging over Europe or, indeed, the personal suffering and uncertainty that Gál had endured in the years immediately preceding his emigration. Something of the sadness and anxiety of those times does inform the music as the movement progresses however; although the orchestration remains refined and deftly deployed, the overall effect throughout this `Andante tranquillo’ is a rather more subdued one than we have heard on much of the disc so far. An `Allegro giusto’ follows without a break and here too the dancing primary material is contrasted with lyrical writing that bespeaks a certain resignation, though one that is no less warm-hearted in tone than you would expect from this composer. The work ends on an upbeat note that suggests Gál was essentially positive in his world view, however.

Although I am familiar with the work of the Northern Sinfonia, the conductor Kenneth Woods and violinist Annette-Barbara Vogel were quite new names to me. Both prove to be impressive advocates for the music here and Vogel plays as though she has been performing these works for many years. The orchestra’s responses are crisp and assured and Avie, which deserves the highest praise for undertaking this project, has captured all the performances in pretty much ideal sound I would say.

This really is a tremendous disc. I am loathe to categorise Gál’s music here as “Neo-Classical”, a far too narrow epithet for music of such range and emotional weight, yet his precise control of musical forms, his beautifully balanced movements and sense of poise overall make it hard to totally avoid that suggestion, especially as a way of defining his position as an inheritor of Viennese symphonic traditions in antithesis to peers such as Schmidt or Zemlinsky. It is perhaps best to sum up in saying that Gál was very much his own man, while remaining aware of the rich, musical history his background had bequeathed to him. Anyone who is interested in twentieth century music in its less avant-garde manifestations will surely find this exemplary introduction to Gál’s music infinitely rewarding.

This generously filled CD is the sort of release that makes one wish Amazon offered the reviewer a `5-star-plus’ option and, as such, comes unequivocally with the highest recommendation.”

Now available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.ukMDT or ArchivMusik

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

4 comments on “Amazon review: Gal Triptych and Violin Concerti”

  1. Patrick

    I find it interesting how if you had recorded a Beethoven or Brahms, the reviewer almost certainly would have focused entirely on your performance of the work, whereas this individual chooses, when confronted with lesser known repertoire, to focus almost exclusively on the material of the work itself. It’s not so much a performance review as liner notes. Helpful certainly for unfamiliar rep but still, an interesting difference in musical reactions. Do you wish the reviewer had engaged more critically with YOUR performance?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Patrick

    Thanks for the comment. Your observation is completely fair, but one has to look at the long view. A recording of new music is seen one way when it comes out- as a chance to hear new music. Later on, when other versions appear, you are then subject to the same kind of comparative listening that goes on with Brahms. That’s the big challenge when recording a new work- creating something that can stand up to competition long before you know what the competition will be.

    Thanks for reading

    Ken

  3. J A Peacock

    Hi Patrick and Ken,

    Thanks for your comments about my review. Essentially I am just an ‘enthusiast’ who writes reviews on Amazon as a hobby and to share my opinions on discs that I am enthusiastic (or otherwise!) about. If I had been reviewing Beethoven’s ninth symphony, for example, I would undoubtedly have concentrated exclusively on my thoughts about the performance and sound quality as you say, Patrick, but, as an inveterate explorer of musical byways without a performing or recording tradition, I do tend to mainly write about recordings of music that unfortunately isn’t so well-known. I think in doing so I try to write the sort of reviews – professional or amateur, like my own – that I have found helpful myself in the way they provide some sort of inkling as to what the music is like. Without such descriptions, there are possibly many recordings (and works) in my CD collection that I might not have got to know had all the reviews concentrated on performance and sound quality; when it comes to a piece of music that is “obscure”, I really want to know whether the idiom would chime with my own tastes, though obviously in the absence of comparative recordings I still want to be assured that the performance isn’t abysmal too! I hope there is room for different approaches to reviewing out there and, above all, in the case of music as fine as this, that positive reviews encourage would-be purchasers and foster further recording projects.

    Best wishes for the successful continuation of the Hans Gal survey, Ken, and to you also, Patrick, with your work; I just listened with great pleasure to the premiere of your sextet via your website.

    Regards, Justin

  4. Patrick

    @J A Peacock Thanks for watching Justin. I had forgotten I had commented here and it was fun to revisit. I absolutely agree with your method of approaching reviewing unfamiliar music, and I’m glad we got an interesting discussion out of this. Do continue your search for the unknown – isn’t it so much more fruitful than just listening to what everyone else is listening to!

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