Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.9 in C major D944 The Great (1825-27) [55:09]
Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Symphony No.2 Op.53 in F major (1942-43) [43:28]
Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair
rec. January 2010 (Schubert) and September 2010 (Gál) in Hall One of The Sage, Gateshead
AVIE AV2225 [55:09 + 43:28]

Avie’s devotion to the music of Hans Gál continues with this release of his Second Symphony. As before, in the case of the First Symphony, it’s coupled on a 2 CD set with a work of Schubert’s. The earlier disc presented the Sixth Symphony, but in this latest disc we have The Great. It’s part of a ‘Kindred Spirits’ agenda, ‘two ends of a great tradition’ as it’s called on the jewel case. I’m sure there are arguments for and against this, and we can all think what they might be. Why not just a single disc devoted to Gal, symphony by symphony? After all Avie presented a single disc of the Violin Sonatas (AV2182) and in the case of the solo piano music, they devoted a three CD set to it (AV2064). There was no ‘dilution’ by including other composers. A counter-argument would surely run like this: the symphonic tradition of which Gál was part was rooted in Schubert and the lineage is enhanced through the conjunction. In any case I’m not yet aware that Zehetmair intends a complete cycle of Gál’s symphonies. To put it simply, if you want this performance of the symphony, you must necessarily acquire a good performance of The Great.
The First Symphony had been written in Vienna in 1927, the Second in Edinburgh between 1942 and 1943. It was first performed in Wiesbaden in October 1948, and then in Dessau in January 1949. Its British premiere came in March 1950, care of the Bournemouth Symphony and Rudolf Schwarz, Gál’s former pupil from Vienna. It seems never to have been performed again until this recording.
It’s a perfectly structured work, excellently proportioned in all respects – classically so, if you like. In a post-war letter to a friend he remarked that it lasts 47 minutes, though in Zehetmair’s performances it is somewhat fleeter, clocking in at over 43. Despite its wartime composition and the torrid circumstances of the composer’s life at the time – the deaths of his son, sister, and aunt – he maintained that the Symphony was a work of consolation, and not a funereal one. That is borne out by this performance. The second movement even has some puckish moments which, in the trio section extend so far as to include some pastoral ones, wind-draped and full of repose: hints, too, perhaps of Til Eulenspiegel. The meditative slow movement rises and crests with the promise of hope; wind solos are gentle and consoling, the brass hints, very subtly, at Bruckner. The ingenious finale starts as a kind of passacaglia but develops a series of diverting episodes, many very charming, embracing a rich solo violin passage. Slowly the music winds down to a beneficent conclusion. There’s no room here for a blaze of spurious glory.
The Schubert receives a well drilled and direct reading. Clarity is a watchword and a general avoidance of expressive extremes. It’s well-paced, and full of probity and warm phrasing. Balances, too, are secure. It doesn’t chart the kind of emotive course established by Furtwängler, say, to take one example of a conductor who harnessed its rhetoric to an often dramatic sense of engagement. Nevertheless it’s a precision-conscious, very worthwhile performance.
Necessarily, though, the Gál symphony is the primary point of interest. Excellent annotations and a fine, vivid recorded quality enhance the production no end.
Jonathan Woolf

Perfectly structured work, excellently proportioned.