Musical champions don’t come more dedicated than Kenneth Woods;
it was his nail-biting crowd-funder last year that guaranteed the
final instalment in his Hans Gál cycle. All the recordings
in this series pair Gál and Schumann symphonies, hence the
affectionate ‘Bobby and Hans’ tag familiar to those who
follow Woods on Twitter. I welcomed his recording of Gál’s
Second and Schumann’s Fourth symphonies (review)
so I was keen to secure an early copy of this duo’s maiden symphonies.
The Stratford-based Orchestra of the Swan have also impressed me in
the past, not least with this radiant Mahler CD (review).
Gál, an Austrian composer, pianist and teacher, settled in Britain before the last war. He was certainly versatile, writing in most genres, but his four symphonies are the works that really deserve to be dragged out from the shadows. Not without good reason, for they have a strength and character that stumps anyone who tries to find a contemporary with whom he can be compared. That said, he’s clearly part of that great Austro-German tradition, and one hears – as if down a tunnel - many echoes of that illustrious past. At no time, though, is he derivative in a glib or damaging sense, and that’s what makes these symphonies so refreshing.
From its quiet, brooding start the First Symphony – in the same
key as Mahler’s – seems to eschew rosy Romanticism in
favour of something more clear-eyed and angular. Deftly scored and
crisply played the Moderato can’t resist the tug of
what’s gone before; just listen to the lyrical episode at the
heart of this movement and, later, to the gentle horns that bring
a Brahmsian wistfulness to the mix. Add in extended passages of chamber-like
transparency and introspection and one begins to get an inkling of
this man’s many talents. If I have any quibbles they are technical,
not musical; the sound, although clean and admirably detailed, is
rather close and lacks the last ounce of weight and warmth That said,
all is forgiven in the half-lit, half-cut Burleske and the
echt-Mahlerian lilt and tilt of Elegie.
The Rondo, another Mahler favourite, finds Gál in a more uncompromising mood. Dragging rhythms, piquant sonorities and sharp outbursts are underpinned by a steady tread, all of which is animated by Gál’s dry, elliptical wit. This is music that doesn’t even begin to reveal its many felicities on first hearing, so what may seem slightly anonymous at the outset soon begins to engage and entertain. The playing is good – not as polished as on that Mahler disc, perhaps - but Woods’s enthusiasm and insight are as impressive as ever.
I daresay few will buy this CD for the Schumann; that’s not to say the performance is wanting, just that there are many fine versions of these symphonies in the catalogue already. Woods brings a HIP-like clarity to the start of a nicely articulated Andante, whose Mendelssohnian sunniness and general joie de vivre are also well caught. This isn’t big-band Schumann, so some may feel the orchestra needs a bit more body; the upside is that the music has a sparkle and bounce that’s most appealing. Less attractive are the rather fierce tuttis.
The rest of the Schumann is uneventful; the Larghetto has some lovely things in it and anyone familiar with this symphony will admire Woods for his firm grasp of both the broad structures and their supporting pillars. I particularly relish his treatments of the score’s lovely sonorities and carefully turned intricacies. Schumann is apt to sound a tad bluff in his perorations, and that’s certainly the case in the Scherzo and Allegro animato. It’s here that one divines the link between Schumann and Gál, for the latter seizes upon and reinterprets these earlier conceits for a new age.
This is a worthy finale to a pioneering cycle, whose only competition comes from Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia in the first two symphonies (also on Avie). Woods and OOTS do this neglected composer proud, so it’s only right that their tenacity and devotion to Gál are finally rewarded. The conductor provides very readable liner-notes, although both the booklet and the CD track-list gives the final movement of the Schumann as Andante rather than Allegro; it’s a small slip, and easily forgivable in Avie’s rush to market this marvellous disc.
The Gál symphony project concludes at last; huzzahs all round.