Why Bobby and Hans?

As I’m busy preparing to record the second volume in our Orchestra of the Swan series of CDs pairing the Schumann and Gál symphonies, I thought it was high time I addressed some of the nuts and bolts reasons behind the pairing. I’ve talked quite a bit in interviews about the artistic reasons I think the two composers’ symphonies go well together,  but I’ve not yet addressed the practical considerations of why we’re not just doing all-Gál discs. For years, the industry axiom has been single composer discs- I understand the logic (and my first Gál disc was, in fact, all Gál, but we were VERY lucky with underwriting for that one), but I find it a slightly limiting mindset. Fortunately, most critics and listeners have been pretty open minded about pairing Gál with Schumann (or Schubert):

 

“It seemed to me initially that Avie’s decision to couple the three Gal symphonies they have released so far with symphonies by Schubert and Schumann was simply to make the cds easier to sell (which it will, of course!) but the couplings now seem much more natural. Gal is a linear descendant”

Poster “Edmund Rubbra” in a classical music discussion forum

 

“It’s an obvious yet inspired decision to combine these two “Thirds” on disc”

Andrew Mellor, Classic FM Magazine

“Schumann’s Rhenish provides both effective contrast and context for the tradition Gál was exploring 100 years later.”

Guy Rickards, Gramophone Magazine

 

“Gál may be a hard sell, but his listener-friendly, bittersweet music deserves an outing, and the Schumann symphony is an attractive bonus.”

Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk

 

“The coupling of Schumann’s Third may seem like an opportunistic commercial move, but the logic is impeccable. Gál was, after all, the author of a book on Schumann’s orchestral music, and the stylistic legacies are crystal clear…..”

Gavin Dixon, Classical CD Review

 

But not everyone has approved:

 

“This is the first recording in a projected cycle of all four of Hans Gal’s symphonies—none of them, as far as I can tell, ever before recorded. Why on earth then does Avie pair Gal’s heretofore unknown Third Symphony with Schumann’s Third? Why not include what all who buy this disc will want: an additional Gal symphony?”

Mark Lehman, American Record Guide

 

Mr. Lehman asks a perfectly fair question: “Why not include what all who buy this disc will want: an additional Gal symphony?” The short answer is that, in this case, it was impossible. People have been waiting many decades for recordings of the Gál symphonies. Without couplings, they might have waited many more.  Here’s why…..


First, the Hans Gál Society (and the Gál family) has been very proactive in encouraging contextual programming  of Gál in both concerts and recordings. This is not an economic philosophy but a musical and educational one. In general, they’ve tried hard, as per Gál’s own sense of his place in music history (which he wore with great modesty), to place his output in the context of the Austro-German symphonic canon.  In this sense, there has been a past reluctance to treat Gál too much as an “Entartete Musik” composer, but to show him as an heir to Schubert, Brahms and Schumann.  One can agree or disagree about whether an all-Gál disc would tell you as much or more about Gál as a Gál-Schubert disc, but there is a lot of idealism behind the decision to record his music in the context of that by composers who influenced him.

The two Zehetmair discs were projects of the Gál Society – though the Kindred Spirits pairing was the idea of Zehetmair (in discussion with the Gál Society and the orchestra). In any case it wasn’t a marketing idea from Avie.

On the other hand, there are very real economic issues that have to be faced to get these records made. An all-Gál disc would cost about twice as much to release because of something called mechanical copyright law, which licenses music under copyright by the minute of disc time. The cost of mechanical copyright and hire charges can be more than the that of printing the cds and booklets.

Avie operates on an artist-ownership model (http://www.avie-records.com/about.php). They work like LSO Live or other artist-owned labels, except they’re not tied to one particular orchestra, instead working with us at Orchestra of the Swan, TZ and Northern Sinfonia, Bychkov/WDR, Petrenko/RLPO  and they handle all the San Franciso/MTT discs outside the US and so on, leading the way with A&R, design, marketing and distribution. The most important thing Avie brings to the table is their reputation for quality. What this means is that each disc is funded and owned by the orchestra (not the record company), the artists or a sponsoring organization (like the Gál Society). Each of the Gál discs to date has required years of work to fund. As each disc sells, the proceeds (to call them profits rather stretches credibility!) go back into the artist’s account (Avie takes a small commission for their efforts). Eventually, there may be enough in the account to do another disc.

This can be a slow process- the good news, is that as new Gál discs have come out, Leon’s wonderful piano disc has improved its sales. Now that the symphonies are out, the Violin Concerti/Triptych disc I did with Annette-Barbara Vogel last year sells a bit more. The more discs out there, creating interest and attracting airplay and discussion, the more likely additional new discs can be made.

Our series with Orchestra of the Swan is going to be a full cycle of Schumann and Gál symphonies (the next recordings will be Gál 4 and Schumann 2 in December). The only way the project can work (i.e. happen at all) is to tie it to concerts (as most orchestral discs are now done), and record all the rehearsals and the concert. For a professional orchestra to do an all-Gal concert is an economic impossibility at this time (our performance of Gal 3 last year was the first Gal symphony concert since the 1970s). A concert needs to have enough familiar repertoire on it to attract a reasonable audience. This means it is not possible to record a whole disc of Gál in the space of one season. We considered going in 2 year cycles and releasing 2 Gáls on one disc and 2 Schumanns on another next year, but one can’t really plausibly fund the second year without the revenue from the first (it also takes at least 6 months for sales revenue to start to return home from all the distributors and retailers).

I happen to love the musical paring of Schumann and Gál, but, of course, I love both composers’ music. Gál wrote a wonderful book on Schumann’s orchestral works (he also wrote wonderful studies of Schubert and Brahms) and you can learn a lot about Gál’s music from what he says about Schumann and Schubert. I agree with the Gál Society (my cycle is an Orchestra of the Swan project, not a Gál Society onr, but we work very closely with the Society, and Simon Fox-Gal is producing all our discs) that hearing his music in the context of his forefathers helps bring this music to life, and I also think one learns about Schumann and Schubert by listening to them in new contexts. The Schumann symphonies are a huge labor of love for me, and I know Thomas Z was deeply invested in the Schuberts that appear on his discs (to the best of my knowledge, TZ is not planning a full cycle of Gál). In both cases, the Schu’s are anything but an afterthought. I really enjoyed TZ’s Schubert, and I hope some of you will find something new in our Schumann 3 (and Schumann can be plenty unsung, too!). In both cases, I see the pairing of Gal and one of the “Schu’s” as more interesting than Gal by himself, or Schumann by himself.

The good economic news is that projects like this tend to keep selling for a long time, gradually building interest through subsequent releases. At some point, we’re hopeful that all involved will actually make some money, but that is likely (unless something takes off and becomes a best seller, which we’d love) that that will take many years to happen. To those of you who feel like you don’t need or want another Schumann or Schubert, I would just encourage you to think of that half of your purchase price as a small but incredibly valued contribution to the next recording. If all goes well, and we get the project finished, of course, there will be a strong incentive to box up all the Gál symphonies with Triptych and maybe some newly recorded string orchestra works. The important word is “if.” Your six bucks/pounds/euros spent on the coupling you may-or-may-not want makes a big difference to us getting all four symphonies recorded. For the foreseeable future, every penny we take in on these discs just goes back into the recording pot towards the next CD, not into the maestros limo fund or Avie’s new palatial office suites. If everyone waits, no box happens, because the project runs out of gas.

That’s a look at the realities of recording in the modern age.

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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

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5 comments on “Why Bobby and Hans?”

  1. Peter

    I can hardly believe anybody is concerned by the Gal/Schumann coupling. It is a brilliant idea on many levels. Even if it is the result of all kinds of pragmatic consideration, it doesn’t make it less good an idea. Perhaps it causes some anxiety among those who don’t know where to store it in their alphabetical catalogues, but if we end up planning projects for how they might be archived, we really have lost all imagination.

    A stout defence Ken, but that you should feel you have to….that is a little demoralising.

  2. Σπύρος

    Until a few weeks ago I hadn’t even heard the name Hans Gál. I was searching on an online store for a recording of Schumann’s 3rd, came across this one, was intrigued and decided to buy it. I received it today so I haven’t heard it yet but I doubt that I will regret my purchase. So I for one I’m glad that this pairing happened.

    But I’m a bit perplexed by the statement of single composer discs being the standard. I don’t keep precise statistics but when I search online it seems to me that I encounter multiple composer cds just as often as I enounter single composer ones.

  3. Σπύρος

    Forgot to say that I quite like it when the cd notes are written by one of the performers so kudos for that.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    @Σπύρος

    Many thanks for the comment. Your story just proves my point- I’m so glad you’ve found your way to the piece, and I hope you come to really enjoy it. Let us know what you think.

    Glad you appreciate the notes- it’s a bit of extra work, but I always liked it when other artists did it.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    @Peter
    Thanks, Peter. I’m not too disheartened. Most of the few people who have whinged about the coupling are, as far as I can tell, real musical idealists, who thought they had sniffed out a cynical marketing ploy. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course, and I think a bit of openness is good all around. I just hope they’ll take the time to listen to the Schumann!

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