Hans GÁL (1890-1987) Symphony no.4 (Sinfonia Concertante), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello & orchestra, op.105 (1974) [36:37]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Symphony no.2 in C (1845-46) [36:11]
Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods
rec. Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 5-6 December 2011. DDD
AVIE AV2231 [73:09]
Hans Gál's 'old-fashioned' music was effectively done down for decades by the post-war illuminati who favoured a strict modernism. The almost ironic boom in modern recordings has given him and the countless other composers who carried on regardless writing 'anachronistic' music a very welcome voice. With this premiere recording of the Fourth, Kenneth Woods and the Stratford-Upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan (OS) continue their four-disc cycle of Austrian Gál's complete Symphonies, interestingly coupled each time with one of Schumann's. Volume one paired Gál's and Schumann's Thirds (AV2230).
Gál's orchestral music is superbly melodious, refined and lightsome. It is also unashamedly retrospective - in places the Fourth Symphony, written in 1974 when the composer was well into his eighties, sounds as if it might have originated a good century earlier, if not still longer ago. As in the Third, there are echoes of Mahler and Brahms and Strauss, but overall it is significantly less Germanic, due in part to its very well-ventilated orchestration, but also to its concertante nature. The latter contributes strongly to the wistful-pastoral, broadly optimistic character of a supremely lyrical work.
In Gál's own words: "This work is akin to a concerto grosso, combining a symphonic structure with the brilliant display and competitive spirit of four soloists who act both as a group and as individuals, emulating each other. In the first movement (Improvvisazione) the main emphasis is on the confrontation of soli and tutti; the following Scherzo Leggiero is a burlesque masquerade of Harlequin and Columbina; the third movement (Duetto) puts the limelight upon the violin and cello as the protagonists, singing a duet, and the Finale (Buffoneria), a rondo with various episodes, is opened, punctuated, and in the end concluded by a kind of wayward harmonic motto."
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!
Sound quality is an improvement on the first volume, which suffered from a certain lack of definition, lending the recordings a slightly lossy effect. On the other hand, this disc has been recorded at an even lower level than the first - it really will require a good twist of the volume knob to compensate! The English-French-German booklet notes are by Woods himself, and once again provide a detailed background and description of the music in personable language.
Somewhat surprisingly, Avie released only last year premiere recordings of Gál's First and then Second Symphonies - conducted not by Woods, but by Thomas Zehetmair, leading the Northern Sinfonia, pairing Gál this time with Schubert. The Hans Gál Society are unsurprisingly pleased; the composer's grandson, Simon Fox-Gál, must also be pleased, having produced and engineered both the Woods and Zehetmair recordings.
Meanwhile, for those left wondering where to get more Gál - or Kenneth Woods, for that matter - the Violin Concerto, Violin Concertino and Triptych for Orchestra are already available on Avie (AV2146, review). Moreover, Gál's Cello Concerto, paired with Elgar's, was released by Avie at almost the same time as the CD under review (AV2237, review) - Woods pops up there in the booklet notes!
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
Wistful-pastoral, broadly optimistic - a supremely lyrical work.