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Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Symphony No. 2 in F Op. 53 (1942-1943) [44:52]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor Op. 120 (1851) [27:43]
Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods
rec. 5-6 December 2011, Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK
AVIE AV2232 [72:35]

Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan first swum into my ken with their very impressive Somm recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and a selection of Wayfarer songs as arranged by Schoenberg (review). They’ve also embarked on an Avie cycle of symphonies by Robert Schumann and the Austrian émigré Hans Gál, of which this new pairing is the latest. Rob Barnett welcomed an earlier volume, but he did express misgivings about the decision to yoke together two apparently disparate composers and musical periods (review). Avie did the same with their earlier world premiere recording of Gál’s Second Symphony, which shares the disc with Schubert’s No. 9 (Avie AV2225).
In principle I see no reason why programmes shouldn’t be constructed in this way, but while the Gál symphonies still have novelty value there are umpteen recordings of the Schumann, many from the finest ensembles and conductors past and present. In any event it’s the Gál I’m most keen to hear, as he is entirely new to me. An Austrian Jew he was Director of the Mainz Conservatory in 1933 when the Nazis dismissed him and banned his music. Gál emigrated to the UK, was interned on the Isle of Man for a short time and, in 1945, began his teaching career at Edinburgh University. Gál also continued to work as a composer, pianist and conductor.
The Second Symphony opens with a most unsettling string theme that blossoms into a mellifluous, pulsing tune whose mood and manner might well suggest pared-down Bruckner. Structurally it’s more tightly drawn – no dancing mountains here – and in that sense Gál’s musical language tends to look backwards more than it does forward. That’s not a criticism, merely a marker, for it’s clear this music inhabits a strange, half-lit world between the warm Romanticism of the 19th century and the cooler climes of the 20th. That said, the gloaming is occasionally pierced with shafts of pure, unexpected loveliness.
This band plays with admirable finesse and concentration, and the recording is clean and well focused. Gál’s textures – often spare, but never emaciated – are alleviated somewhat by the greater amplitude and more rhythmically alert Allegro energico. At times there’s a hint of Mahler in dancerly mode, but what strikes one most forcibly is Gál’s propensity for periods of lucence and chamber-like intensity. It’s a persuasive mix, and there are no longueurs to speak of. As for that gorgeous Adagio, with its haunting cello line at the outset, it’s startling in its blend of radiance and gravitas. Eloquent playing, too.
After that magical interlude, the deep spell – broken by brief, perfectly scaled tuttis – the Allegro moderato draws together all those echoes and barely glimpsed outlines of the Austro-German tradition that hover over this music like unquiet spirits. Again, it’s that contrast between small-scale introspection and Gál’s more extrovert but always discreet utterances – a balance superbly struck by Woods and his players – that makes the strongest impression. There’s just enough invention and interest to keep one focused in the admittedly sporadic last movement – the shades of Brahms and Richard Strauss lurk – but after the Adagio’s deep Romantic blush the finale may seems a little bloodless.
A most interesting work, and one that I hope to return to soon. This is one of those musical by-ways that majors tend to ignore, so Avie and Woods must be commended for their sterling efforts on Gál’s behalf. As for the Schumann it’s pleasingly done, even if the opening Ziemlich langsam lacks that last degree of character. Animation isn’t in short supply though, and orchestral unanimity and thrust are well maintained throughout. The Romanze is elegant enough – rhythms aren’t perhaps as supple as they could be – but then all is forgiven in a mobile, crisply articulated Scherzo and an enthusiastic but nicely proportioned finale.
Schumann is part of the long, noble musical line to which Gál belongs, so it makes perfect sense to pair these works. It also gives Woods and his band a chance to slip in some mainstream repertoire although, as I suggested earlier, that’s risky when there’s so much competition out there. No, the Gál symphony is the real draw, and I’d say the disc is worth acquiring just for that.
The Gál is persuasively done; a most intriguing musical detour.
Dan Morgan