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Hans GÁL (1890–1987)
Piano Trio in E, Op. 18 [28:41]
Variationen über eine Wiener Heurigenmelodie (Variations on a Popular Viennese Tune), Op. 9 [7:10]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 [27:08]
Briggs Piano Trio
rec. 2018, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
AVIE AV2390 [63:05]

The Briggs Piano Trio, which Avie brought together for this release, have a mission to raise the profile of the Austrian composer Hans Gál. In 2016, Sarah Beth Briggs and Kenneth Woods collaborated on the world premiere recording of the composer's Piano Concerto (review). Earlier this year, Briggs contributed to Volume 3 of Gál chamber music series on Toccata Classics (review). I was very lucky to have the opportunity to review both those discs. Kenneth Woods, whose many-faceted career includes not only playing the cello but also conducting, has recorded the composer's four symphonies. Looking around, there is every evidence that a Gál renaissance is underway, and not before time.

Hans Gál, born in Vienna in 1890, 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. He helped found the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. He died in 1987 aged 97.

Gál penned his Piano Trio in E major in 1923. His fortunes had been on the rise. He had been awarded the Rothschild Prize in 1919, and had secured a post on the teaching staff at the University of Vienna, albeit on a modest salary. Then came a period of political instability caused by German hyperinflation, but none of this turmoil is reflected in the Trio. I discovered that this was the first of two piano trios he wrote. The other was a short work in G major, Op. 49b, composed just over twenty-five years later in 1949. Both trios, together with the 'Heurigen' Variations have been recorded before, in 2004, on the Camerata label. I have never heard this alternative so I will not offer any comparisons.

The Op. 18 Trio is in three movements. The first is melodically rich, where dreamy lyricism alternates with more dramatic intent. Sweeping declamatory romantic gestures are seasoned with the occasional hint of nostalgia. The piano seems to have a prominent role. The central movement is a Scherzo in all but name. It opens with a sprightly romp which falls over itself into a bout of rough and tumble. The trio section offers some warm lyrical contrast. The finale has a slow wistful introduction; this gradually becomes a whimsical allegro, which is capricious and mercurial in character.

The Variations on a Viennese 'Heurigen' Melody date back to 1914, but were only published after the First World War. The work has gained some popularity since, and here provides some lighter fare before the anguished Shostakovich Trio. The Briggs Piano Trio seem to be really enjoying themselves here, and imbue the work with an alluring Viennese charm.

Shostakovich's four-movement Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor from 1944 was dedicated to his friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who had recently died at age 41. It was premiered in Leningrad on 14 November the same year. The work is a response to both the national tragedy of war and his own very personal loss. The first movement opens with ethereal harmonics around which the muted violin weaves an eerie melody, backed by some dark sombre piano chords. The atmosphere could not be more bleak. The tempo becomes more animated but the overall mood is restless and agitated; there is no peace. To the second scherzo-like movement, the players bring savage irony and wit. A passacaglia with funereal tread, weighed down with pain and anguish, precedes an Allegretto finale, where joy and sorrow rub shoulders. Shostakovich makes use of Jewish themes in what one can only describe as a danse macabre. The ensemble deliver a rhythmically potent reading which really makes you sit up and take notice. Their energy is totally infectious.

For Gál enthusiasts, like myself, this release will be self-recommending. The Briggs Piano Trio’s immaculately tailored performances, enhanced by superb sound quality, get my warm-hearted recommendation.

Stephen Greenbank



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