Complete String Trios
Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Serenade in D, for string trio, op.41 (1932) [25:37]
String Trio in F sharp minor, op.104 (1971) [25:09]
Hans KRÁSA (1899-1944)
Tanec, for string trio [5:53]
Passacaglia and Fuga, for string trio [9:44]
Ensemble Epomeo (Caroline Chin (violin); David Yang (viola); Kenneth Woods (cello))
rec. Millfield School Concert Hall, Somerset, England, 13-15 December 2011. DDD
AVIE AV2259 [67:08]
If honorary knighthoods were awarded for services to a composer, then it would be Sir Kenneth Woods by now - such is the dedication the American cellist-conductor has shown in championing the works of the ridiculously neglected Austrian musician Hans Gál. The last year or so has seen the release of two of four volumes of Gál's Symphonies on Avie, in each case played by the Orchestra of the Swan under Woods (review, review). In 2010 Woods conducted the Northern Sinfonia in his debut recording for Avie in Gál's Violin Concerto and Concertino and orchestral Triptych (AV2146). Woods also wrote the booklet notes for Antônio Meneses' recording, again on Avie, of Gál's Cello Concerto (review).
Despite the focus on Gál in this new release, the two shorter works by Hans Krása, his sole contributions to the string trio literature, are by no means fillers. Krása's String Quartet has been recorded a few times, often paired with that by Pavel Haas or Viktor Ullmann. Krása's name is linked eternally with theirs, for the most tragic of reasons: all three composers perished in the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz in 1944. Only a small quantity of Krása's works survived, most notably his children's opera Brundibár, also recorded several times. Poignantly, the two items performed here date from that final year, written at the Terezín concentration camp shortly before his fatal transfer to Auschwitz.
Tanec ('Dance') lives up to its title - for a minute or so. After that the mood is more sombre - hardly surprising, given the circumstances it was written in. Yet in his notes Woods refers to "tone-painting that evoke[s] the sound world of trains", a description that certainly seems at odds with the title. Whether trains were Krása's actual intention he does not say; the mental picture may be Woods' and is in any case far from self-evident. Woods also says that the "main dance theme, heard first in the violin, is frequently pulsed on the edge of mania, finally flipping over the edge on the work's final page." This assertion is more debatable. Krása was undoubtedly feeling psychological stress - to put it mildly - at the time of writing, but in those final pages of Tanec, which are exciting and urgent rather than menacing or extreme, Krása always seems to keep the work's title in mind.
In his Passacaglia and Fugue Krása again gives the lie to his dire situation by teasing listeners with a kind of pseudo-version of both these ancient forms. Woods' commentary is again a little enigmatic, referring to the "gravely austere beauty" of what is in fact a gentle, almost nostalgic opening. Krása may have meant it to have a valedictory aspect, but at Theresienstadt, with death all around, his intention was surely to produce music to keep spirits up as much as possible - and to entertain his gaolers. To write that, at one point, "all hell breaks lose", of a "desolate codetta", of music that "becomes violent and primitive", and above all of a "terrifying conclusion", is surely claiming an insight into Krása's mind that no one could have. In any case, there will be many listeners - especially those who are familiar with string chamber music of the period - who hear none of those things Woods claims for, but instead an imaginatively written, energetic, even sometimes witty Trio that at any rate deserves a permanent place in the repertoire. Both works also confirm Krása's own description of himself as a modern composer "sufficiently daring [...] to write melodic music."
The soundworld of Janácek's Kreutzer Sonata is called to mind initially in the first movement of Gál's Serenade in D, which, given the two composers' common Central European heritage and the fact that the Serenade appeared less than a decade on, is hardly a bombshell. Yet Gál's own sound here is actually considerably more traditional in its orientation: its classical dimensions, dancing rhythms and easy-going tunes look back even as far as Haydn. Like Haydn, in fact, Gál beguilingly conceals the artistry in his writing.
Amazingly, Gál was in his eighties when he wrote the String Trio proper. An alternative version employs a viola d'amore, reflecting its commission by the London Viola d'Amore Society. The opening tranquillo con moto movement sets the tone for an understated, mellow, philosophical, sometimes wry work of great maturity - and again, no sign of what Woods calls an "almost unremittingly tragic" episode. As with the Serenade, it is also deeply conservative - plenty of chromaticism but much that, harmonically, could easily have come from the start of the 20th century. The spirits of Strauss and Zemlinsky are a benign presence almost throughout.
Though Woods' booklet notes sometimes sound over-emphatic, as noted above, they do provide a detailed background and description of all the music in sincere, communicative language. Translations are provided in French and German.
Sound quality is very good. In their debut recording, Ensemble Epomeo (named after an Ischian mountain) are thoroughly convincing from beginning to end. Their sense of ensemble is democratic, their attention to the score attentive and respectful, and their tone warm and welcoming. Expressively they are as much at home with the elegant, small-R romantic classicism of Gál as with the more semantically ambiguous colourings of Krása.
Incidentally, the 'Complete String Trios' title is not entirely accurate, at least not if an older, broader definition of the genre is taken: according to the Hans Gál Society's website, there are also two works for two violins and cello, a Scherzando without opus number and a Little Suite op.49a (with piano ad lib.). At any rate, there is much more of Gál's glorious chamber music still inexplicably awaiting a first recording.
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Ensemble Epomeo are as much at home with Gál’s elegant, romantic classicism as with the more semantically ambiguous Krása.