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Hans Gál (1890-1987)
Quartet in A major for piano left hand, violin, viola and cello (1926)
Suite for piano, Op 24 (1922)
Concertino for piano and string orchestra, Op 43 (1934)
Impromptu for viola and piano (1940)
Gottlieb Wallisch (piano)
Aron Quartet
Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra/Hartmut Rohde
rec. 2019, Tonzauber-Studio, Wiener Konzerthaus, Austria
CPO 555 276-2 [58]

Any appreciation of Hans Gál begins by understanding that he was a largely conservative composer. Not for him the intricate convolutions of dodecaphony, integral serialism, electronic or aleatory music. If anything, he made aesthetic nods to Brahms and occasionally Mahler. Grove’s Dictionary describes his style thus: “uniting many elements: the clarity, playful humour and formal mastery of early Classicism; the chromatic harmony and extended tonality of early 20th-century, pre-serial music; a Schubertian love of melody; the lyricism and emotional restraint of Brahms and the contrapuntal textures that remained fundamental to his style.”

The Suite for piano is a good place to begin. The earliest piece on this disc, it was completed when Gál was living and working in Mainz. This is charming music. The Praeludium nods towards French Impressionism without being a parody. The Minuet is a clever fusion of classical sensibilities with a touch of a Parisian nightclub about it. My favourite movement, the vibrant Capriccio, manages to balance two entirely contrasting sections: a bouncy bit of burlesque and a long melody with a hint of folksong. More significant matters are found in the Sarabande funčbre, which is not quite as depressing as this sounds. The Suite concludes with a well-wrought Gigue, once again juxtaposing two diverse themes, this time a lively, mischievous tune against “feigned sentimentality”. The liner notes quote the composer’s daughter, Eva Fox-Gál: “I think each [movement] represents a facet of his style and in fact anticipates much of his later piano writing.”

The main event on the disc is the Quartet for piano left hand, violin, viola and cello, dedicated to the pianist Paul Wittgenstein. After the Great War, many works were written for him: he had lost his right arm during the Battle of Galicia. These include important contributions by Britten, Ravel, Korngold and Hindemith.

The booklet discusses in detail the genesis and subsequent revision of the Quartet. Three performances took place between 1928 and 1930, and then the piece was largely forgotten. It was never published or given an opus number. The Quartet, more than 27 minutes, is cast in four movements. The heart of the work is the Adagio, dolce ed espressivo. This is not intense music but rather tender and introspective. The opening Vivace ma non troppo is dignified and occasionally wistful, with lots of contrasting themes and development. The second subject is particularly poignant. The scherzo, placed second, is a breath of fresh air. Light and breezy, this typically quicksilver music is balanced by a stately trio section. The Molto vivace finale is vibrant, and has an almost Bartokian sense of rhythm. The notes explain that all the movements are thematically unique; this Quartet is not cyclic. The overall impression in this outstanding performance is of a composer who is utterly confident with his instrumental resources and musical material.

The Concertino for piano and string orchestra comes from the time when persecution by the Germans forced Gál and his family to move to Vienna from Mainz, where he had held the position of Director of the Hochschule für Musik. For five years, he was employed as a conductor with the Vienna Concert Orchestra and the Bach Society in Vienna.

The work opens with a powerful Intrata, signed to be played Grave e maestoso. The liner notes suggest that the dotted notes are redolent of one of Handel’s Concerti Grossi. This is followed by a beautiful, disarming Siciliano: there is nothing here to suggest the stress that Gál was under. A long cadenza leads into the final Fuga, lively, complicatedly contrapuntal and full of buzzing energy. The middle section is just a little bit more reflective.

After the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, Gál and his family fled to London en route to the United States but they never crossed the Atlantic. Donald Tovey invited him and his family to Edinburgh, and he was appointed Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. He remained in this city until his death.

The final number on this CD is also the latest. Composed when Gál was already in Edinburgh, the Impromptu for viola and piano was dedicated to his fifteen-year-old son Peter. The young lad had recently taken up the viola, after having learnt to play the violin. The booklet correctly suggests that this is an occasional piece and a “personal work written as a present from father to son”. Yet, it is deeply felt, if somewhat straightforward. The romantic harmonies will reinforce the notion that Gál was influenced by Brahms. It deserves to be in the repertoire of all violists.

In preparing my review, I have been beholden to the excellent, informative liner notes by Dr Michael Haas in German and English. Details of the performers are included. Inside the rear cover there is an evocative photograph of Hans Gál with his daughter Eva (somewhere in Edinburgh, by the look of the buildings in the background). As usual with CPO recordings, the sound quality is outstanding. All the performances are sympathetic and totally engaged.

This remarkable CD introduces the listener to four interesting and immediately approachable works by one of the most engaging members of that group of brave composers defined as “Continental Britons”.

John France

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