Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Symphony No.2 in F, Op.53 [44:52]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [27:43]
Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods
rec. Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, 5-6 December 2011
AVIE RECORDS AV2232 [73:11]
It is thanks to the efforts of people like Kenneth Woods that the music of Hans Gál is gradually becoming better known. It is quite shameful that a composer as good as he was should have lived amongst us, and taught so many students, for forty years, yet should still have to be brought out from the shadows into the light of recognition.
Having escaped with his family from Nazi Germany to Britain in 1938 he found himself interned in 1940 by an overzealous government. He found himself alongside German prisoners of war, many of them Nazis. As if that were not enough first his mother died in March 1942 and then the following month his aunt and sister killed themselves to avoid being sent to Auschwitz. All of this was too much for his young 18 year old son Peter who took his own life in December that same year. Against this background it is all the more surprising that he should write a Second Symphony which is an overwhelmingly peaceful one, full of the most passionately lyrical and truly beautiful music that one could wish for.
It seems that Gál was well aware of the prevailing mood in the late 1940s in terms of taste. It seemed that the musical establishment wanted to turn its back on everything that smacked of the past when it came to contemporary compositions. He was so convinced he would not get his symphony performed that he submitted its adagio as a standalone piece which his friend and champion Otto Schmidtgen premièred in Wiesbaden in 1947. He gave its first complete performance in that city one year later. It was then given two performances by one of Gál’s former students in 1950 and 1951 after which it was never played again until the Orchestra of the Swan revived it in 2012.
Once heard it seems both cruel and inconceivable that it should have remained in oblivion for so long. However, in common with many other composers writing after the war, Gál’s music was considered too ‘old hat’ by the powers that be at the time. They were busily promoting the works of people like Webern, Schoenberg, Stockhausen and the twelve toners rather than anything by anyone brave enough to doggedly continue to write ‘tunes’.
This attitude which mercifully no longer exists prevented the public from getting to know works by other composers such as George Lloyd, Berthold Goldschmidt, Alan Bush and many others. What it has lead to is surprise when works by such people are heard that there were composers writing in the post-war years who produced such lyrically tuneful and melodiously inventive compositions. These have stood the test of time and are emerging to find new audiences eager to discover what they’ve been missing. People’s reaction to music is so subjective that it is difficult to put into words. This is precisely why music ‘reaches parts that other things cannot reach’. That said the first movement acts as an introduction to the entire symphony and establishes the work’s lyrically calm nature. This is followed by a wonderfully witty second which is bright and energetic. It has at its core a most memorable tune that will I’m sure become one of those ‘earworms’ that will play itself over and over again in my mind for a considerable period. It is easy to see how Gál believed that the adagio could take on a life of its own. It is so richly romantic and full of such gorgeous melodies that one could never tire of hearing but as listeners will readily discover it makes even more organic sense when heard as an integral part of the symphony as a whole. The finale gathers together all the strands of the symphony in a kind of summation. The final notes indicate the belief that the consolation so deeply expressed in the adagio will come at last. What a perfect antidote to the horrors taking place at the time it was written. How readily audiences would have responded to its message had they but had the opportunity of hearing it then.
On a recent radio programme I heard the author David Mitchell. His novel Cloud Atlas has been recently released as a film and he told his interviewer how envious he was of composers because they are able to go a step beyond words to express innermost feelings in a way that writers simply cannot do. Hans Gál’s Second Symphony is a perfect illustration of that.
This excellent series has coupled the symphonies of Hans Gál with those of Robert Schumann who Gál admired so much and about whom he wrote an extremely authoritative book. On this disc Gál’s symphony is paired with Schumann’s Fourth which Gál had a particularly high opinion of. He wrote ‘If the Third Symphony represents Schumann’s closest approach to symphonic monumentality, the Fourth Symphony is his most ingenious experiment in form’. It is even more impressive when one considers that despite its being known as his Fourth it was in fact the second that Schumann wrote; the Third was the last he composed. However, the Fourth was considerably revised and only published ten years after he had completed the first version. When it was first performed in its original version it met with a muted response. This was partly due, it seems, to a reportedly rather lacklustre performance. This was conducted by Ferdinand David the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s concertmaster rather than Schumann’s friend Mendelssohn who had made such a success of introducing the world to Schumann’s first ‘Spring’ symphony.
In Kenneth Woods’ excellent booklet notes he describes the final version’s first movement as representing ‘one of the most original reimaginings of sonata form of the post-Beethoven era’. The movement’s main theme is passionate, powerfully stated and memorable and is wonderfully developed throughout its length. The second subject, introduced two-thirds of the way through evolves into ‘an ecstatic coda, which eschews any Beethovenian restoration of order and stability’ as Woods puts it. The short Romanze is more of a gentle interlude rather than a full-blooded romantic outpouring. The brief return of the first movement’s opening theme is toned down in delivery from portentous to light and airy. A contrast is then created with the Scherzo which is rather austere followed by a trio which completes the movement in a more relaxed atmosphere. The final movement, which follows seamlessly, is very satisfying as a conclusion to all that has gone before. There are impressive outbursts of brass and some marvellous themes which carry the symphony to its end with an exciting flourish. Kenneth Woods puts a cogent argument in favour of the revised version from 1851 as opposed to the original of 1841 which some people argue is what Schumann “really meant”. I’ve always been a huge fan of Schumann’s piano music but have to admit that I have not felt quite the same admiration for the symphonies. This recording has helped me in a reappraisal.
Listening to these two symphonies back to back I was struck by the fact that one hundred years separate them. One would never have guessed and this brings me back to some of my opening remarks about Gál and the trouble he had in getting the recognition he so richly deserved. On Woods’ website I was drawn to read a really interesting article by Anne Midgette which first appeared in the Washington Post in 2012. She concludes by saying that his music was ‘elegant, adeptly constructed and unashamedly tonal, even beautiful’ and that it ‘hearkens back to a bygone tradition of Viennese romanticism that wasn’t what the music world thought composers should be writing in the late 20th century’. That explains why, when the symphonies were released in 2011 and 2012 they were all world première recordings*. This condemns the ‘music world’ of the late 20th century while creating a huge debt of gratitude for the steadfast resolve of Kenneth Woods. To hear the symphonies now and then to try to imagine not being able to is almost inconceivable. Woods has done the ‘music world’ of the 21st century a huge favour in making these wonderful works known to us. Both the Gál and the Schumann symphonies are played as wonderfully here as they could possibly be. The Orchestra of the Swan is a band of superlative players whose commitment to the music matches that of its leader and it shows in every note. This is a fantastic release and the series as a whole will, I hope, exert some pressure upon the programmers to include Gál’s symphonies in concerts so that an even wider public can get to know them.
* Since then Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia have recorded Gál’s Symphonies 1 & 2 coupled with Schubert Symphonies 6 & 9 on two discs entitled 'Kindred Spirits'.
Woods has done the ‘music world’ of the 21st century a huge favour in making the Gál known to us.
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