Critic Rick Jones (longtime critic for the London Evening Standard) compares the new Orchestra of the Swan recording of Schumann 1 with that of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Yannick Nezet-Seguin on Deutsche Grammophon. Read the original here.
It’s Bobby and Hans for the win.
Disc of the Day: One hears the first cuckoo… Not one but two Schumann Spring Symphonies hove into earshot. Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan versus Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Woods wins it. One needs express no surprise when the committed outfit with its own conductor beats the prestige youngsters under the rising star jet-setter. The Woods performance is tighter, rhythmically crisper, richer in contrasts, more characterful and always closer to the composer’s wishes. Nezet-Seguin twice decelerates where no tempo change is marked – the first movement’s second subject (where Woods marks the contrast not by speed but stark, clear-blue-water contrast between the wind legato and the string agitato) and, more deliberately, the bowed unisons after the skittish pizzicato in the finale. It ruins the momentum. Woods carries on through precipitously, which is clearly what Schumann intends. Woods is slower in the slow movement but anticipates the chords with unified crescendi. He is half a minute quicker in the Scherzo and quite Beethovenian in the string scales where the European conglomerate sounds plodding and lacks the bass throb in the same scales. The solos – the paused horn call, the flute cadenza – show the European mettle but one expects that as these are the cream of instrumentalists skimmed off, but the sense of ensembles within the ensemble in the Stratford On Avon orchestra, with Woods’ woodwind even achieving comic tone together, is more important ultimately than fine solos. Golden the daffodils in Shakespeare’s birthplace.
It’s less than forty-eight hours now until recording sessions begin for volume 4 of Bobby and Hans- the complete symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann. We’re all very excited that the day is nearly at hand. YOU made it happen!
Interest in the project continues to pick up. Performance Today, American Public Media’s national digest of live classical music, has just rebroadcast our performance of Schumann’s 2nd Symphony, recorded in December 2011 as part of the sessions for volume 2 in the series. They’ve also included a selection from our recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, sung by the incomparable tenor Brennen Guillory. You can listen to the program online until Thursday the 5th of December here.
Recording is like nothing else- getting great material on disc requires a rather unforgiving balance of precision and passion. To get the kind of passion and energy that makes a recorded performance leap out of the speakers, the musicians need to play every take with the kind of intensity and energy that one would hope to achieve in a very inspired concert. To get the kind of precision and attention to detail, one is constantly having to stop and work on all sorts of technical details, fine points of interpretation and questions of style. In a concert you don’t have to repeat things or remember what went wrong to fix it the next time. In a recording you do. Going back and forth between sorting out the detail and playing at maximum intensity in real performance mode takes great skill and vast reserves of energy.
Sir George Solti- one man who knew how to give everything on every take
I’m not sure any composer needs a more exacting balance of detail and passion than Robert Schumann. This morning the Orchestra of the Swan and I are starting to record our third Schumann symphony together. When we recorded our first Schumann in 2010 (the last symphony in E-flat major sometimes erroneously called the “Rhenish”), I think it took some time for the musicians to actually believe that they really had to give as much energy as I was asking them for on every take. Smart orchestral musicians know that a recording session is absolutely useless if your chops give out, so wind and brass players in particular are very careful to pace themselves whenever they can, and later composers are more shrewd at spreading out the workload than Beethoven and Schumann were. The problem with Schumann is that there are very few times when one can back off without the music suffering. I think we’ve all heard enough tepid Schumann symphonies in our lives- listless, sprawling heatlamp-warmed buffets of mezzo forte overcooked musical vegetables. Blech.
We started the two days with the first movement of the Schumann because it needs the most raw energy. In some ways, it needs even more intensity than anything in the E-flat and C major symphonies we’ve already recorded because of the stormy nature of the music.
And of course, even with all our shared experience in Schumann, and a complete lack of skepticism from the musicians, it’s taken the first hour or so to start to get the intensity, the depth of sound, the huge and immediate dynamic contrasts and the rhythmic vitality we need. By this point, I’m already a sweaty, panting mess. It’s going to be a tiring couple of days. Conducting is not always a dignified business (note how many times you can see Solti’s underwear in the clip above- how much do I love that he doesn’t seem to give a flying f*ck about this?) I’m all for recording in long takes in theory, but with 3 sessions to keep in mind, I decide early on to record and patch in short-to-medium length bursts of maximum intensity. There’s no point in playing on for one bar if the energy level drops. That way, everyone can rest their chops for a moment between takes while we sort out details. Also, we’ll be recording the concert, which will give us the ultimate, high-energy long take. Some whole movements on previous discs have been taken almost complete from the concert, while others are all from the sessions- I challenge anyone to guess which is which. After the break, things start to click in earnest, and the coda, in many ways the most difficult part of the movement, comes together very quickly.
With just fifteen minutes left, it’s not realistic to record the entire second movement even though it is short, but it’s important to make a start on it. We read it and the solos sound lovely, but the whole thing is a little too Romantic and lugubrious. Schumann modelled this Romanze on a courtly Renaissance dance- he even considered using lute or guitar to accompany the cello/oboe duo. As soon as I ask the orchestra to lighten the second beat of each bar and treat it as dance, the whole thing is transformed. As Simon, our producer, remarked at the break it “instantly changed the architecture of the whole thing.” I’m not sure I’d consider any part of the movement to be “in the can,” but it’s not technically hard and everyone now knows how it goes.
For each of these discs, we have five rehearse/record sessions and a concert. I write the schedule to try to record the outline of everything in the first four sessions, which leaves the last session to rehearse the overture, fix anything that has been giving us problems and tie up loose ends. It’s actually not realistic to get everything done in those first four sessions- I know when I do the schedule that we’ll always run a bit behind, but I do this because you never quite know what might need a night to settle, or what might give me or the players extra trouble. So, it’s fine to run behind schedule as long as you don’t build up more than two and a half hours of work to do in the final session. By the end of this morning, we’ve got the first movement in the can and know what needs doing with the second. Getting it recorded will probably take another thirty minutes, at least, which leaves us two hours of flexible time in the final session tomorrow. That’s pretty good- first sessions are notoriously slow with all orchestras and producers because it takes time for the engineer to find the sound and for the orchestra to get in the grove. For one project, I think we ended up about an hour and forty-five minutes behind at the end of the first session. That’s when you start to feel tiny shards of glass grinding against the lining of your stomach whenever you look at the clock.
As I leave for lunch, I run into Phil, our wonderful first bassoonist. I thank him for some great work, and he says he’s “just relieved to have the slow introduction behind me. It’s the most strenuous thing in either piece.” I mention this because I think audiences sometimes think it is the fast and loud music that is most difficult or the most exhausting- quite the opposite, and this is one reason this Schumann is so hard. By the time the main part of the movement starts, the winds have already played the most tiring music in the whole symphony.
The four semi-spotlit soloists turn in terrific performances in this least symphonic of Gál’s four Symphonies, but then again so do their fellow OS-members under Woods’ immaculate direction. He and the OS are even better in Schumann’s Second Symphony, which finds the composer in Beethovenian vein at his most luxurious and radiant, despite his ongoing battle with depression. Though there is an astonishing focus on C major throughout all four movements, the Second is anything but monotone, even the slow movement emanating a joie-de-vivre and elegance that underline the healing power of passionate music. The smaller ensemble of the OS works perfectly for Schumann, and Woods’ attention to the details of this intellectual but emotionally gripping score and phrasing is second to none – this is the Second Symphony as Schumann wrote it to sound, and as the early-Romantic masterpiece it truly is!
“An Austrian Jew who eventually settled in Edinburgh and achieved fame as an academic, Gál’s early renown came through composition. His final symphony was completed in 1974 but – intensely personal, elegiac, nostalgic music, and completely out of step with the times – it could have been written 80 years before. Gál saw himself as part of the Austro-German tradition, and his last symphony achieves a Haydnesque clarity and concision. It’s sparely scored for a classical orchestra, and you’re reminded of Richard Strauss’s similarly anachronistic final works…”
“The restraint of the Gál is intelligently coupled with Schumann’s Symphony No 2. There are no reservations at all about the playing of the Orchestra of the Swan under Kenneth Woods. Good chamber orchestras can make Schumann sound lighter, fresher, leaner – there’s plenty of definition and lightness here. Woods manages to make the first movement’s obsessive triple time rhythm sound like music instead of a stuck record, and the Scherzo has the requisite bounce. There’s plenty of stoic melancholy in the Adagio, but not enough to derail the symphony’s emotional trajectory. Excellent, in other words.”
“The Third Symphony, which opens with such a gentle, lovely theme on the oboe, then the flute, before the horns zone in more assertively, has simply to be one of the most graceful modern symphonies. There is a haunting Viennese waltz lilting through parts of it. How can anything this lovely – try to resist the gorgeous andante – not have been performed in 55 years, until this superb recording by Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan? They and their forces both do equally well with the Schumann …. This is music for those who thought the world had ended, and who can now discover that it didn’t.” [emphasis added]
Reilly’s column (you can read his review of our earlier Gál Violin Concerto disc here) is on of the more diverse and interesting in its breadth—this month, in addition to Gál, he covers music by Braunfels, Rontgen, Fritz Brun, Felix Weingartner (yes, the conductor), Havergal Brian, Enescu, Wolf-Ferrari, Paul Graener and Paul Juon. Yes, that’s all in one month’s column, and not a mention of celebrity crossover discs in sight.
“In addition to the remarkable limpidity of Gál’s scoring, the overall atmosphere is lyrically pastoral. But appearances are deceptive, as Woods notes in his intelligent booklet-notes, noting the music’s ‘intense rigour and deep concentration’ where what ‘seems the simplest and most straightforward…proves to be the most sophisticated and complex’. There are lighter moments aplenty, particularly in the second and fourth movements (framing the beautiful Duetto: Adagio), respectively a gentle evocation of Harlequin and Columbine and a ‘Buffoneria’, the title of which does no justice to its subtle design.
The Orchestra of the Swan provide a quietly compelling account, relishing the many solos, duos and textural intricacies that Gál wrings from his orchestra. Their account of Schumann’s C major brings playing necessarily of greater fire. While Zinman’s just still remains first choice, Woods’s finely wrought interpretation confirms his credentials – if confirmation were needed – as a symphonic conductor of stature… Strongly recommended.”
Klangfarbenmelodie, or “tone colour melody” is one of those 2 dollar words we all learned in undergraduate music history class. Simply described, in Klangfarbenmelodie, a single melodic line jumps from instrument to instrument, creating a more-or-less constantly varied coloration of the melodic line. It’s a word we normally associate with the composers of the New Vienna School, and fair enough, Schoenberg himself coined the word in his treatise Harmoniliere.
However, there’s nothing new under the sun, and the actual technique of Klangfarbenmelodie was in use long before Schoenberg coined the term. Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony offers one of the earliest, most extended and most interesting examples I know of (although, like everything good in music other than the fugue, the technique was probably invented by Haydn).
A new review for the Orchestra of the Swan’s recording of Hans Gal’s Fourth Symphony and Schumann’s Second from fellow Wisconsin native/cheesehead James R. Oestreich, in the June 3rd edition of the New York Times. Read the whole thing here. A short sample follows
Gál, revered during his lifetime as a 20th-century composer, teacher and writer (a wonderful biography of Brahms, among many other works), is no mere curiosity. But a curiosity he surely is, a throwback who wrote old-fashioned symphonies (this Fourth in 1974) and concertos of consummate craft in a mostly consonant, mellifluous style seemingly little touched by the great tragedies of the 20th century or his personal troubles.
Born near Vienna in 1890, he established a substantial career in Germany but was driven by the Nazis back to Austria and then to England, only to be interned there for a time. Several members of his family, similarly tormented, killed themselves. Gál died in 1987.
His Fourth Symphony, also called Sinfonia Concertante, gives prominent solos to flute, clarinet, violin and cello. The spirit is perhaps closest to Neo-Classicism, though, even deploying a smallish orchestra, Gál seems to be striving for some of the lushness of his beloved Romantics.
Mr. Woods and the orchestra do a fine job of revealing the qualities of this peculiar master. JAMES R. OESTREICH
A new review for the Orchestra of the Swan’s new recording of Hans Gal’s Fourth Symphony and Schumann’s Second from critic Colin Anderson, editor at Classical Source. Read the whole thing here. A short sample follows
Gal: “It’s a bewitching work. Anyone responding to Richard Strauss’s last music (such as Horn Concerto No.2, Metamorphosen, and Capriccio), often referred to as ‘autumnal’, will find much to like in Gál’s expressive and pastoral first movement. The pirouetting scherzo owes something to Columbine and Harlequin (of commedia dell’arte fame); the slow movement is deeply-felt; and the finale is entitled ‘Buffoneria’ and is a delight. This first recording of Gál 4 is admirable, players whether soloists or ensemble at the top of their game, the music’s deep-seated expertise unravelled for the listener’s pleasure.
Robert Schumann’s Second is one of the greatest of symphonies. Period! It’s a wonderful outpouring, at once deeply personal and vividly outgoing. Energy and eloquence combine for a score that simply stays fresh, thrilling and entrancing with each and every outing (even surviving the dodgy ones!). Kenneth Woods and his willing band of Swans give a superb performance, lithe, neat, nimble, poetic (the glorious slow movement really touches the heart) and passionate. A chamber performance it may be, but there’s no lack of power and passion when required and it’s also a reading studded with detail: woodwinds, brass and timpani revealingly balanced with the strings (violins helpfully antiphonal).
If I am ever sent off to that desert island and can grab a Schumann 2 before embarking, I would take Sawallisch’s Staatskapelle Dresden version while bemoaning the leaving-behind of Celibidache and Boult (very different readers of this symphony), but Woods and Swan are right up there, charting this marvellous work with a very special dedication and insight.”
“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 “
‘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.’
I had nothing but praise for the previous disc from Kenneth Woods with the Orchestra of the Swan of Hans Gál’s Third Symphony coupled with Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ (reviewed in July/August 2011). I find myself in a similar position now.
Gál composed his Fourth (and last) symphony in 1973 at the age of 83; like the other works of his advanced old age it is consciously a last visitation of its genre, but in no sense a work of farewell. Perhaps it’s better to think of it as what the Germans call a Bekenntniswerk (A work that declares a belief), instinct with a lifetime’s experience but still full of life. Gál subtitled it ‘Sinfonia concertante’ and it features a quartet of soloists- violin, cello, flute and clarinet—in addition to a severely Classical orchestra of paired oboes, bassoons and horns with timpani and strings. In his programme note for the 1975 premiere in Edinburgh (for which he had to extract all the performing materials himself), Gál likened the result to a concerto grosso, but though the soloists have a great deal to do both individually and as a group, I feel less of a Baroque antiphony between the four soloists’ concertino and the orchestra’s ripieno than a sense in which the soloists take part seamlessly in a constantly evolving symphonic argument, not so much displaying their virtuosity as bringing out the individual voices of Gál’s deft and intricate polyphony, into enhanced relief.
The work’s overall effect, like that of the Third Symphony, is conditioned by the rather paradoxical “serenade” character that informs much of Gál’s late music. The four movements comprise a preludial ‘Improvvisazione’ introducing an Allegro moderato, a ‘Scherzo leggiero’ that, according to the composer, is a ‘burlesque masquerade’ on the figures of Harlequin and Columbine from the commedia dell’arte, and an Adagio entitled ‘Duetto’ that spotlights the solo violin and cello, and a cheerful rondo finale entitled, as if to deflect any hint of seriousness, ‘Buffoneria’. The spirit of Busoni’s Junge Klassiztät (youthful classicality) seems to preside over the work, most of all in the Italianate leanings of scherzo and finale. The urbane and civilized surface, like a friendly, quizzical smile that never slips even if maintained in the face of long and wearisome experience of fate and human nature, does not exactly conceal great depths, but it certainly diverts the attention—at least on first hearing, so I recommend several repeated ones—from the symphony’s extraordinary richness of ideas and all-encompassing technical command. Equable but not comfortable, infused with a Haydn-like sanity, the work simply stands in principled opposition to chaos, opportunism and the vagaries of fashion. This doesn’t make it a masterpiece (its mastery does that). Throughout his career, Gál felt himself to be in the Brahmsian tradition, though his music seldom sounds particularly Brahmsian. Yet Brahms himself– usually so niggardly of praise for the efforts of the younger generation—would surely have found warm words of admiration for Gál’s Symphony no. 4.
Schumann’s C major Symphony, like the Rhenish on Woods’s previous Gál/Schumann coupling, receives a first-rate performance, perhaps a little hard-driven in places but with a wonderful sense of expansiveness and profound and delicate feeling in the slow movement. Gál, in his BBC Music Guide on the Schumann orchestral works, described this symphony as ‘not without problems’—but those problems can be compensated for by sufficiently intelligent pacing of the first movement and finale, which these movements certainly receive here. Though I wouldn’t place it, as an interpretation, quite on a par with those of Muti, Marriner or Solti (whom I find especially impressive in this work), it‘s a very fine one, and the playing of the Orchestra of the Swan is absolutely top-notch. I found its ‘Rhenish’ a little small-scale (and it is, when all’s said and done, a smallish orchestra) but there’s no hint of that here.
It remains to point out that David Le Page, Christopher Allan, Diane Clark and Sally Harrop—the concertante soloists in the Gál—play throughout with refinement, beautiful tone, an understanding of the idiom and complete understanding of their role in the composer’s polyphonic web. All in all, this is a very welcome and highly recommendable release.
What an exquisitely crafted piece Hans Gál’s Fourth Symphony is. The work succeeds against all the odds, facing down a range of problems from outright anachronism to a major crisis of generic identity. The subtitle “Sinfonia concertante” suggests the main title may be simplistic, and indeed four instrumentalists are promoted to starring roles in the music. Another complication is work’s continual recourse to chamber music textures, all of which are very beautiful and delicate, but rarely symphonic.
As for the anachronism, the symphony was written in 1974, a time which cared little for neo-Romantic or even neo-Classical music when written without irony. But Gál overcomes, or possibly ignores these many problems and writes a work that succeeds splendidly on its own terms. The music is civilised and contained, but never dry. It is contrapuntal but not overtly intellectual. And although its instrumental forces are limited, every player is put to good use…
Kenneth Woods now has a great deal of experience in handling the music of this proficient but always understated composer, and the symphony is given a thoroughly convincing performance…The solo group, David Le Page, Christopher Allan, Diane Clark and Sally Harrop are all similarly attuned to Gál’s sophisticated but understated aesthetic. All four are able to walk the fine line between soloist and chamber musician that the music requires.
…Woods gives the Schumann a highly Romantic reading, as if to accentuate the differences between the two works. Nevertheless, this is another fine performance, never going to any interpretive extremes, but still finding an impressively contemporary feel. All repeats are observed, as are all dynamics, articulations and tempo indications. Woods makes no concessions to the first violins in his choice of tempo for the scherzo, but they cope magnificently. And the later antiphonal sections are enhanced by the placing of the seconds on the right. In fact the stereo separation on the recoding is quite extreme, which helps to pick out the soloists in the Gál. The rits in the second movement of the Schumann are exaggerated a little too much for my taste, and the third movement adagio is just a little too understated. But all is redeemed in the finale, which is lively and energetic while always carefully controlled.
Another triumph then for Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan. The conductor’s celebrity seems to have increased significantly over the course of this cycle… And he’s clearly on the same musical wavelength as this fine orchestra, so expect great things from their future recording projects together.
With the lighter No 4 (Sinfonia concertante Op 105) Kenneth Woods continues his distinguished Gál cycle recorded at Stratford-on-Avon. This, with solo flute, clarinet, violin & cello is the aged composer’s farewell to composition, a lovely work which reminds one of Haydns’ sinfonia concertante with violin, cello, oboe and bassoon soloists. It ends with a Buffoneria !
No. 3 is a grander affair, and each is coupled with a Schumann symphony, Woods’ account of Schumann No 2 with his chamber orchestra overturning my disregard of it as my unfavourite of the canon…
All in all, this is a worthy endeavour, which should keep the name and music of holocaust survivor Hans Gál (1890-1987) before the public as long as CDs continue to be bought…