Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Symphony no.2 in F, op.53 (1942-43) [44:52]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony no.4 in D minor, op.120 (1841/1851) [27:43]
Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods
rec. 5-6 December 2012, Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon. England. DDD
AVIE AV2232 [72:35]
The two Avie cycles involving Gál’s symphonies have both proved highly entertaining and enlightening. Kenneth Woods and Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS)'s four-disc series has already given pairings of Austrian composer Hans Gál's symphonies with one of Schumann's, a composer Gál admired and wrote about. Volume one paired their Thirds (Vie AV2230, review), whilst volume two Schumann's Second and Gál's Fourth (Avie AV2231, review); volume three reversed these numbers for Schumann's Fourth and Gál's Second (Avie AV2232, review).

Beside Gál's appreciation of Schumann, there is another justification for this combination, in that Gál's music is 'old-fashioned' by modernist standards, and self-evidently descended from Schumann. Mellifluous, elegant, limpid and nostalgic are four tags that might attach to almost anything Gál wrote, and that certainly goes for the Second Symphony. As in the Third and Fourth, there are echoes from the outset of Strauss, then Mahler and perhaps Bruckner.

By way of succinct description of the work, Woods quotes Gál's own programme notes: "The first movement is a calm, freely formed introduction, which presents some of the motives that are important for the further course of the work. The following lively and energetic movement stands between this introduction and the broadly laid out Adagio which forms the heart of the Symphony; it acts as a 'drama of the world' [Weltspiel] between the two parts of a meditation which is turned completely inwards. The actual conflict and its working out is left to the last movement, which, starting out from a passacaglia-like episode, develops into an extended sonata form and, in an ever more calming coda, spins itself again into the withdrawn mood of the introduction, turned away from the world."

In fact, this rather dry note does not really do justice to the invention and drama of the work. It also suggests a rather introverted, sombre tone, which would be entirely understandable in light of the tragedy that repeatedly impinged on Gál's life immediately before its completion in 1943: the death of his mother, the suicide of his aunt, sister and youngest son - all in the same calendar year. On the contrary, however, humour and warmth abound, particularly in the second movement scherzo, and lyrical tenderness and hope are always more prominent sentiments than outright melancholy or despair. This big, impressive work has only recently been rescued from oblivion. The OOTS' performance of it in 2012 was its first for fifty years, according to the notes - though the Northern Sinfonia's recording under Thomas Zehetmair (Avie AV2225) took place in 2010, which obviously predates it a little.

Gál aside, Woods and the OOTS' Schumann series has been something of a revelation, the smaller forces bringing much clarity to a composer whose symphonies have often been unfairly accused of textural thickness. As Woods points out, the score of the Fourth was revised by an older, wiser Schumann "for performance by the 45 or so musicians of his Düsseldorf orchestra or the Leipzig Gewandhaus, (not a modern symphony orchestra of over 80 players)".

There are dozens of recordings of Schumann's Fourth available - and that is considering only the full cycles. Thankfully, the modern trend is for smaller ensembles for Schumann, Roger Norrington's 'HIP' cycle for the German Hänssler Classic label among the most high-profile (94.602). There are even many recordings of Schumann's original version of this work - favoured and published by Brahms - and those wishing to compare Schumann's improvements to the original can do much worse than to turn to another Avie recording, again with Thomas Zehetmair leading the Northern Sinfonia (Avie AV2125).

Nevertheless, no one buying this disc for the Gál, as is most likely, will be disappointed by what is a particularly refreshing reading of Schumann. On the other hand, Woods's account of Gál is close enough to Zehetmair's that those who already own the latter will not necessarily feel compelled to acquire the former. Woods's movement timings are almost identical to Zehetmair's, the main (but minor) difference being his slower-by-a-minute account of the central Adagio, true to the composer's metronome markings. Notwithstanding, the growing legion of Gál fans will certainly want both sets. In his notes, Woods - now carving out a third impressive career, besides conductor and cellist, as annotator - describes the Second Symphony, not unreasonably, as "a wartime masterpiece that contemplates peace both personal and universal." More emphatically still, on his website he calls Gál "the best damn Austro-German master you didn't know existed."

There is also an apparent argument here that Avie have been wasteful in launching these two side-by-side series - Zehetmair's may well not be a full cycle - especially as Gál is paired each time with a composer who has been prolifically recorded. Woods has discussed this question in interviews and online, citing above all the huge financial commitments and risks necessary to get such a project recorded, especially considering the fact that Avie actually operates an "artist ownership" business model. Thus, though Franz Schmidt's four symphonies would have made a daringly provocative pairing, and any four of Karl Weigl's would have thrown up some interesting comparisons, the inclusion of the entirely bankable Schumann or Schubert makes realisation quicker and indeed more likely. As Woods expresses the "the realities of recording in the modern age", starkly: "To those of you who feel like you don’t need or want another Schumann or Schubert, I would just encourage you to think of that half of your purchase price as a small but incredibly valued contribution to the next recording."

Woods' expansive, well written essay on the composers and their symphonies comes in English, German and French. This recording has the same decent sound quality as the previous disc. Incidentally, besides Zehetmair, there is more quality orchestral Gál already available on Avie - the Violin Concerto, Violin Concertino and Triptych for Orchestra (Avie AV2146), as well as the Cello Concerto paired with Elgar's (Avie AV2237, review). Woods the cellist performs Gál's String Trios with his Ensemble Epomeo colleagues on Avie AV2259 (review).

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Masterwork Index: Schumann symphony 4

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