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Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 67 (1944) [33:46]
Cello Concerto in F major (1935) [31:48]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Konzerthausorchester Berlin/Nicholas Minton
rec. 2016, Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Berlin
CPO 555 074-2 [65:39]

The album contains two concertos separated by ten years or so, by Hans Gál and by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (a world premiere recording), close contemporaries. Their lives of had many parallels. This recording is the first volume in a projected series of cello concertos written by exiled Jewish composers, championed by cellist Raphael Wallfisch. He identifies closely with the theme of the series: his parents were Jewish musicians active in Germany, who survived the Holocaust, subsequently emigrating to England. Wallfisch writes: “The whole journey has a lot of connotations and significance - it almost feels like we are completing the plans of the exiled composers by recording their music in Berlin, to allow their music to live on.”

Once acclaimed by the central-European music establishment, Gál’s music experienced a golden period from the end of the Great War to the very early 1930s. It was championed by influential conductors: Szell, Furtwängler, Keilberth, Kleiber, Busch and Weingartner. After the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, Gál, an Austrian Jew working in Germany, was dismissed from Mainz Conservatory, and his music was banned. Fearful for his life, he fled to Britain, finally settling in Edinburgh. Like many composers of his time, he became marginalised. His tonal music was in the manner of a bygone generation, and consequently it moved into virtual obscurity.

In the last decade or so there has been a growing number of recordings of Gál’s works, but performances are still quite rare. He wrote 174 scores in a wide range of genres. Over a fifty-year association with Scotland more than half of them were composed in his adopted country. He wrote ten concertante works, one of which, the Concertino for cello and string orchestra (1965), I recently reviewed on its world premiere recording on Avie. Another connection thrown up by this recording is that Raphael Wallfisch’s parents knew Gál personally.

Gál’s Cello Concerto in B minor was composed in 1944 in Scotland, but it was not a commission and neither did he envisage that a particular cellist would play it. Its premiere had to wait six years when Guido Vecco performed it in Gothenburg, Sweden. The opening Allegro moderato is squally in parts and calmly comforting in others, with an undertow of melancholy and pining never far away. A plaintive oboe opens the Andante which introduces a light pastoral feel to the writing. A restrained emotional character permeates the music maybe a reflection of calm, happier times. A sense of searching, as if looking for a sense of true direction infuses the Finale. Wallfisch’s playing of the substantial cadenza is faultless. From point 9:19 (track 3) the writing, subtly dance-like, has the feel of a carefree countryside holiday.

Born in Florence, Castelnuovo-Tedesco exchanged life in Italy for America. Whilst in Italy, he experienced success with some of his compositions, especially his collaborations with virtuosi Andrés Segovia, Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky, and his scores were conducted by no less a figure than Arturo Toscanini. The rising anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, the Italian anti-race laws and the banning of his music forced Castelnuovo-Tedesco in 1939 to leave Italy for America. There he was able to launch a career as a solo pianist, including premiering his own piano concerto under John Barbirolli, and he continued his own prodigious compositional output. In fact, he wrote one hundred compositions for the guitar alone, and fourteen concertos. Help from Heifetz enabled Castelnuovo-Tedesco to establish himself in Hollywood as a film composer, working on some 200 films. His best-known work is the celebrated Guitar Concerto in D, Op. 99 (1939) which has received a considerable number of recordings.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto in F major resulted from a prestigious commission from Gregor Piatigorsky, who introduced the score in 1935 with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini. Piatigorsky adopted a firm exclusivity over the score. As it faded from repertoire, other cellists seemed disinclined to play it. Incidentally Piatigorsky was the teacher of Raphael Wallfisch, who is the first to revive the score for this recording.

The opening Allegro moderato feels like a depiction of wide open prairies, with a curious distinct cinematic quality. The solo cello part feels a touch introverted. Rather uneventful and undemanding, the Andante contains suggestions of a folk-dance with a rather unassuming if persistent melody. In the Finale energy and purpose is immediately evident – a welcome relief. Wallfisch takes the demands of the animated cadenza in his stride. The work concludes on a positive note, with a short rousing burst from the orchestra.

With so little emotional depth or tension to hold the attention, it is odds-on that these scores will remain on the fringe of the concerto repertoire. Nevertheless, Gál’s is the more interesting of the two: more variety, both expressively and technically. Rather uneven in quality, the Castelnuovo-Tedesco score is not without suggestions of note spinning. Undeterred by the generally underwhelming quality of the scores, Wallfisch plays impeccably, with all the sensitivity one expects, and displays a beautiful tone. Under Nicholas Minton, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin do not put a foot wrong with an accomplished performance full of detail. Recorded at Großer Saal, Berlin Konzerthaus the sound has clarity and ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. In the booklet there is a model essay by Michael Haas, with much helpful information.

Despite impressive performances and satisfying sound, I doubt this album will appeal to any other than the most avid collector of rare cello concertos.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank


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