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Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Op. 57 (1948) [32:42]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat, K482 (1785) [35:59]
World premiere recording (Gál)
Cadenzas: Denis Matthews (Mozart)
Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Kenneth Woods (Gál); Sarah Beth Briggs, Bradley Creswick (Mozart)
rec. 12-14 January 2016, Hall One, Sage Gateshead, UK
AVIE AV2358 [68:51]

‘Persisting tirelessly’ is the OED’s definition of indefatigable, an adjective that describes conductor Kenneth Woods rather well. Thanks to him we now have splendid recordings of all four Gál symphonies; these are available singly – No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 – or as a 2-CD set (Avie AV2322). And if one needed proof of Woods’s commitment to this project he organised a crowd-funder that financed the last disc in that series. Now he’s turned his attention to the composer’s only piano concerto; as before, the Gál piece is coupled with another from the same genre, but by a different composer.

The pianist Sarah Beth Briggs is new to me, but she’s already recorded a number of solo albums for Semaphore Multimedia; Stephen Greenbank certainly liked this one (review) and Byzantion admired these two (review) (review). As for the Royal Northern Sinfonia - founded in 1958 and based at the Sage Gateshead – they’re the only full-time chamber orchestra in the UK; hard to believe, but that says something about the state of serious music in these straitened times. Incidentally, I was pleased to see the players are listed in the CD booklet; other labels, please take note.

Gál, born in Vienna, fled the city in 1938 and fetched up in Edinburgh, where the musicologist, composer and pianist Donald Tovey (1875-1940) found him temporary work. Gál was interned for a time, but returned to the Scottish capital where he taught until he retired in 1960. He carried on composing, though; as Woods points out in his very readable liner-notes, Gál wrote his 24 Fugues, Op. 108 when he was 90. Happily, labels such as Divine Art, Gramola and Toccata are also doing their bit to promote the work of this inexplicably neglected composer.

Gál’s piano concerto, composed in 1948, is in three movements. The first, Allegro energico ma non troppo, finds the soloist in firm but coruscating form. However, it’s the quieter, more tangential writing that’s most alluring. There’s a quick wit at work here, with fleeting dance-like tunes and sudden tack changes that remind me of Prokofiev in Puckish mode. Briggs really brings out the music’s skittish qualities, and the ever-attentive RNS respond in kind. The recording is clean, detailed and reasonably well balanced; not top-notch sound, perhaps, but perfectly acceptable.

The elegant, wonderfully transparent Adagio is pure delight. As so often with this composer there are haunting hark-backs – ghostly echoes of old Vienna – that are both poignant and powerful. Briggs is sensitive to the movement’s wistful character, and Woods offers sympathetic support throughout. Goodness, this is gorgeous music, lovingly calibrated; as for the RNS strings, they add a quiet luminosity to the mix. And although the Allegretto vivace has a spring in its step – supple rhythms and taut timps to the fore – there’s room for introspection, too. One of Gál’s abiding strengths is that he never overworks his material; there’s no hype or hectoring, either. In short, this is a most engaging score, delivered with real affection and skill.

Just as the Schumann symphonies are part of the musical tradition that informs and animates Gál’s contributions to the genre, so Mozart’s piano concertos mark the start of yet another strand of musical history. Indeed, despite its outward virtuosity Gál’s Op. 57 is built on well-established lines, with proportion as its keystone. His concerto is the real draw here, so the Mozart – directed by Briggs and orchestra leader Bradley Creswick – could be seen as something of a makeweight. That’s not a criticism, merely an acknowledgement that anyone seeking a recording of K482 might not think to look for it here.

As it happens this is a rather attractive performance, traditional in its means and manner but lithe and lissom, too. Interestingly, Briggs uses the cadenzas written by her one-time teacher, the late Denis Matthews. Not everyone will take to these, but the upside is that Briggs is an artist with prowess and personality, a rare combination in this age of runaway technique. True, HIPsters may find the presentation is less ‘hear-through’ than they’d like – especially in the Andante – but then Briggs’s infectious pianism is impossible to resist. The orchestral playing here is neat and nimble, balances are decent and the piano has a pleasing tone.

Another fine addition to the Gál discography, with a delectable ‘filler’; Sarah Beth Briggs shines in both.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank (Recording of the Month)



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