Explore the Score- Gal Cello Concerto

“Whilst it may be a long road before the symphonies promoted by Kenneth Woods become regular concert fare (he can’t be everywhere !) the chances for this marvellous cello concerto to become part of “the repertoire” are far better, since soloists play a big part in publicising concertos which they favour…Meneses looks to students to take it up; the CD should be in every college/academy library and aspiring young cellists should be vying with each other to bring it to the audiences at their major concerts “

Peter Grahame Woof, Musical Pointers

Cellist Antonio Meneses and the Northern Sinfonia have just made a stunning recording of Elgar and Gal’s cello concerti with his longtime friend and collaborator, conductor Claudio Cruz. Although I wasn’t involved in the recording, Avie Records asked me to write the liner notes for the CD, which I was very happy to do.  The upshot of this project is that we’re very happy to present expanded versions of the Gal and Elgar essays as special Explore the Score features, including clips from Antonio’s new CD, due out in June. You can read the essay on the Elgar Cello Concerto here..


‘Why does one write a concerto?’ Hans Gál asked himself this question in the unlikely context of the 1954 BournemouthWinter Gardens Society Magazine. His pointedly personal response is simplicity itself. ‘A concerto, to my mind, is one of the most thrilling, most fascinating problems of composition, a problem of form, style and expression that demands the utmost experience and technical resourcefulness.’

Hans Gál was born in 1890 just outside Vienna, where he studied with Richard Robert and Eusebius Mandyczewski. He rose to great prominence in 1920’s and 30’s Germany and Austria, particularly as an operatic composer, but when Hitler came to power in 1933, Gál lost his position as director of the Conservatory in Mainz and his music was banned. The war years brought great challenges and personal tragedies, but he continued to compose prolifically throughout. He eventually settled inEdinburgh, where he would go on to teach atEdinburghUniversityfor many years.

The Cello Concerto was composed primarily in 1944. The early 1940s had been difficult for Gál. In March 1942 his mother died. The following month, his aunt and sister took their own lives to avoid deportation toAuschwitz. The strain of such upheaval and tragedy evidently became too much for Gál’s youngest son, Peter, who took his life in December 1942 at the age of only 18. Like many of Gál’s wartime works, including the Second Symphony, the Cello Concerto was composed with no promise or immediate hope of performance.

Cellist Antonio Meneses

The Concerto was premiered by the Göteborg Orchestra in November 1950, with cellist Guido Vecchi, conducted Armando La Rosa Parodi. Gál uses an orchestra of Beethovenian proportions- double wind, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. Gál neatly summed up the central challenge of the genre: “This problem has been solved by the great composers in different ways, but its essence remains the same… how to arrive at an ideal balance of symphonically-conceived music and the relaxed playfulness of a brilliant solo part as the central, commanding feature.”

There is no questioning the brilliance of the solo writing in Gál’s Cello Concerto, which particularly exploits, as so often in Gál’s writing for the instrument, the uppermost reaches of the cello tessitura. Gál’s precise balance of symphonic conception with improvisatory playfulness is manifest immediately in the Concerto’s opening paragraph, a soaring melody which encompasses almost the entire register of the solo cello over lush orchestral accompaniment, followed by a cadenza. Here the soloist muses on the accompanimental figure played by the orchestral celli in the previous passage- a telling first example of Gál’s clever integration of symphonic and concertante writing. The first movement is conceived on a broad scale, with textures ranging from the extended duet for cello and solo oboe to a central orchestral tutti of shattering intensity. In spite of the tightly knit connections between musical ideas and the symphonic scale of the movement, Gál was keen to avoid “a symphony with a solo instrument obligato… This conception of a concerto, to my mind, contradicts the very meaning of a type of composition, the purpose of which is to give a noble setting to a spirited, fascinating individuality on the platform.”

After the austere E minor of the first movement, the flowing Andante opens in A-flat major, with a tender oboe melody over the simplest of accompaniments, a gentle tread of crotchet chords in the strings. This is one of Gál’s favourite textures- for instance, the Third Symphony, written not long after the Cello Concerto, begins in almost exactly the same sound world. The cello takes up the oboe tune, but rather than repeat the complete melody, soon breaks off into a gently ruminative cadenza, a perfect example of Gál’s wish that the solo writing always maintain “a most stimulating element of improvisatory spontaneity.” “However closely built the musical substance may be, there must always he sufficient scope and time for the graceful or expressive or dreamy or purely brilliant exuberance of that capricious character who is the centre of events…”

The final Allegretto Vivace e con spirito opens with a gruff swagger and restless energy that is worlds away from the tender song-without-words of the Andante. The heroic tone and 2/4 time signature may bring to mind the last movement of the Dvorak Concerto. After a playful second subject, the soloist embarks on the longest and most dramatic of the work’s many cadenzas. When the orchestra rejoins, it is not with the march that opened the movement, as might have been expected, but with a melancholy reminiscence of the Concerto’s opening theme. However, the protagonist is not to be drawn into nostalgic reveries, and quickly reasserts the heroic tone of the Finale’s openingThe success of a concerto,” said Gál, “depends… upon whether the composer has been able to make this central character stand out as an interesting, original figure.” Gál’s “central character” indeed stands out for the way in which the soloist strides effortlessly between whimsy, fantasy, ecstatic lyricism, fiery virtuosity and heroic striving. In the Concerto’s coda, Gál lightens the works tone with a shift of tonality to E major, and a shift of mood to Allegretto grazioso, alla marcia, and the concerto ends on a buoyant, spirited note.


C. 2012 Kenneth Woods (www.kennethwoods.net)

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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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