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Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Chamber Music - Volume 3
Piano Quartet in B flat major, Op.13 (1914) [31:16]
Three Sonatinas for Violin and Piano, Op.71 (1956) [30:52]
Sonatina in F major for Violin and Piano (1934) [9:18]
Katalin Kertész (violin)
Nichola Blakey (viola)
Cressida Nash (cello)
Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)
rec. 2017, Johnson Hall, Millfield School, UK
Premiere recordings

It's encouraging to see the Hans Gál renaissance gathering pace. This latest release from Toccata Classics is the third volume in their series of his chamber music. The other two issues garnered enthusiastic praise from MWI reviewers (review ~ review ~ review). Volume 3 has been recorded under the auspices of The Hans Gál Society. Eva Fox-Gál, the composer's daughter and the Society's Honorary Vice-President, has written the informative accompanying annotations, which usefully locate the music into some sort of biographical and historical context. An added bonus is that all are premiere recordings.

Hans Gál was born in Vienna in 1890 and studied piano with Richard Robert, who also taught Clara Haskil, Rudolf Serkin and George Szell. Robert later appointed Gál teacher of piano, harmony and counterpoint at the New Conservatory in Vienna. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Gál 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. In 1942 his mother died, and his aunt and sister took their own lives shortly after to avoid deportation to Auschwitz. In December 1942 his son Peter, only eighteen, met a similar fate. Throughout the composer’s long life, music was to sustain him, and the tragedies that came his way in no way dimmed his creative powers. He eventually relocated to Edinburgh, where he remained for the rest of his life. Whilst there he helped found the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. He died in 1987 aged 97.

The earliest work here is the Piano Quartet which dates from around 1914. Gál was a young man in his early twenties living in Vienna. No autograph exists, so accurate dating is difficult to pinpoint. What is known is that the Quartet immediately predates the onset of World War 1; the composer was to spend the next five years on active service in the Austrian army. The first documented performance took place in the Kammermusiksaal of the Musikverein, Vienna on 7 February 1920, with publication following two years later. The music exudes youthful fervour and exuberance. Despite echoes of Brahms and Dvořák, there's no doubting that, by this stage, the composer is beginning to find his own voice. It's a substantial work in four movements, expansive, ebullient, confident and conveying boundless energy. Mood, character and dynamic contrasts provide a heterogeneous mix. The piano writing is virtuosic, and Sarah Beth Briggs, no stranger to Gál’s music - I reviewed her premiere recording of the Piano Concerto a couple of years ago - meets the technical challenges with aplomb. In fact, all four players contour the ebb and flow of the music with consummate skill and authority, never once losing sight of the rhetoric.

The 3 Sonatinas for Violin and Piano, Op. 71 make a striking contrast to the more emotionally-charged Piano Quartet. These intimate, lyrically effusive miniatures were geared towards domestic use rather than the concert hall, being written for his twelve year old daughter Eva in 1956. No. 1 is in two movements, the others in three. The piano writing is, in the main, contrapuntally drafted rather than chordal. There’s much to enjoy. No. 1 has a delightful theme and variations movement, imaginative and characterful. The central Cavatina of No. 2 is soothing and beguiling. The finale Rondo of the Third Sonatina, though notched up technically, radiates happiness and glee.

Gál’s eleven year old son Peter, who also played the violin, was the beneficiary of the unpublished sonatina which ends the disc. It was penned in Vienna in 1934. The Lento cantabile middle movement has a melancholic vein, which is countered by a jovial finale. The composer must have had an abiding affection for the piece. In 1937 he scored it for string orchestra, adding a scherzino movement. It’s now known as Serenade for Strings, Op. 46.

Katalin Kertész’s warm, burnished tone and affectionate phrasing, matched with Sarah Beth Briggs’s sensitive pianism, is a winning element in these captivating performances. They’re aided by a sympathetic acoustic and ideal balance.

Stephen Greenbank



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