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Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Op. 57 [32:51]
World premiere recording
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat K482 [36:00]
Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Kenneth Woods (Gál); Bradley Creswick (co-director) (Mozart)
rec. 12-14 January 2016, Hall One, Sage Gateshead, UK
AVIE AV2358 [68:51]

On the face of it Hans Gál and Mozart seem unlikely bedfellows but, as the conductor Kenneth Woods is at pains to point out in the booklet notes, there’s a logic to this pairing: both “bookend the long golden age of Viennese musical primacy”. Gál was born in Vienna, and Mozart spent the last ten fruitful years of his life there. Another factor is the piano, the primary instrument of both composers. In the intervening years between their lives, the piano concerto had evolved, reflecting the developments the instrument had made in terms of range, power and sonority. What is striking about the Gál Concerto is that its composer appears to take a backward glance, celebrating those qualities Mozart held so dear in his concertos – transparency of texture, clarity of articulation and beguiling lyricism.

Hans Gál has been undergoing something of a renaissance of late, with the enterprising label Avie leading the vanguard. The Complete Works for Solo Piano were released in 2008, whilst Kenneth Woods has proved himself a worthy advocate in distinguished recordings of the Violin Concerto, Violin Concertino and the Four Symphonies (No. 1 ~ No.2 ~ No. 3 No. 4). Sarah Beth Briggs also has a connection with the composer; Hans Gál’s grandson has produced all five of her solo CDs on the Semaphore label.

Gál studied piano with Richard Robert, one of the most influential teachers in Vienna at the time. Rudolf Serkin and Clara Haskil were nurtured in the same stable. He also studied composition and, surprisingly, did his composing away from the piano, standing at a high desk. He sustained himself by teaching piano, harmony and counterpoint at the New Conservatory in Vienna. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he saw the writing on the wall and eventually fled to the UK in 1938. He spent a period of internment in the Isle of Man. Then tragedy struck; his mother died in 1942, his aunt and sister took their own lives shortly after to avoid deportation to Auschwitz, and his youngest son, Peter, did likewise in December 1942 at the young age of only eighteen. Music seemed to sustain the composer during this difficult period, his creative powers seemingly undimmed. After his release he relocated to Edinburgh, where he remained for the rest of his life. Whilst there he helped found the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947.

The Piano Concerto dates from 1948, and received its premiere a year later under Rudolf Schwarz and the Bournemouth Orchestra with Otto Schmidtgen as soloist. The Concerto is here receiving its world premiere recording. The solo piano makes a bold entrance right from the start with a broad romantic theme. Soon the movement takes on an affable disposition, jubilant, joyous and optimistic by turn. What impresses me is the composer’s skilful and brilliantly imaginative scoring. Wood’s deft handling of the orchestral textures is a perfect foil to Briggs’ adroit virtuosity. In the Adagio which follows, the prevailing mood is one of peace and contentment. Gál can certainly rise to the occasion with a luscious big tune, proving himself an accomplished and inspired melodist. At one point, time almost stands still, and the pianist’s pellucid tone is raptly intense. It’s worth mentioning that the Steinway used has been expertly voiced and is richly toned. The playful and capricious finale has a touch of the burlesque about it, and both pianist and orchestra inject plenty of humour and wit. Notable is Gál’s light, diaphanous scoring, which Woods brings to life and contours with clarity and definition.

It was Edwin Fischer’s captivating recording of Mozart’s K482 that introduced me to this concerto. I’m so pleased that it was chosen, as it’s one of the lesser played yet contains a mine of riches. Bradley Creswick, the leader and co-director, sets the ball rolling with a tutti that’s noble and robust. The woodwinds have a prominent role, Mozart employing the clarinet for the first time in a piano concerto. Once again, the woodwinds are pointed up to miraculous effect. Briggs seems to have a natural way with Mozart, instinctively shaping the phrases and bringing to the music elegance and aristocratic poise. What impresses me is her sensitive use of the pedal, never blurring the harmonies but using it to add colour and tonal shading. Mozart left no cadenzas for this work and the pianist turns to those written by her late teacher Denis Matthews for Dame Myra Hess in 1953. The slow movement is a lament, informed by melancholy and pathos. The performance probes to the very heart of the music, imaginatively characterizing the variations of the sombre theme with a striking directness. The hunting finale has geniality and charm, with the central courtly minuet adding an element of contrast.

Sage Gateshead is a venue I’m familiar with, and Hall One provides a warm, sympathetic acoustic to showcase these alluring performances. Ken Woods’ informative annotations are helpful. Gál’s Concerto has been a welcome discovery for me and I hope pianists will take it up, giving it a more prominent place in the repertoire.
Stephen Greenbank



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