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Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Music for Viola - Volume 1
Suite Concertante, for viola and orchestra, Op 102a (1949) [19:51]
Divertimento, for violin and viola, Op 90 No 3 (1969) [20:37]
Sonata for viola and piano, Op 101 (1942) [19:41]
Trio, for oboe, violin and viola, Op 94 (1941) [21:11]
Hanna Pakkala (viola), Reijo Tunkkari (violin), Irina Zahharenkova (piano), Takuya Takashima (oboe), Ostrobothnian Chamber O. / Sakari Oramo
rec. 2018/19, Snellman’s Hall, Kokkola & Akustiikka, Ylivieska, Finland

The Hans Gál revival happily shows little sign of petering out – he made music of consummate craftsmanship, and music this good should always transcend the narrow confines of fashion. I must admit the first time I heard Gál’s music (his Symphony No 2) I found it pleasant if rather old-fashioned. I then read an interview with the conductor Kenneth Woods which encouraged me to try it again. I’m so glad I did, because a decade or so later I cannot think of a single composer of Gál’s vintage whose output I devour more voraciously with each new release.
Why Gál then? Two things strike me. As one becomes familiar with his individual style one begins to realise that nothing he writes is throwaway or superfluous. Every marking, note, tone-colour and gesture counts – a place for everything perhaps. Secondly, Gál seems to occupy some strange no-man’s land between Paul Hindemith and Robert Simpson, although his actual music rarely resembles that of either composer. He shares the profound integrity and seriousness of purpose of the Englishman while projecting something of Hindemith’s directness of communication (notwithstanding the German’s occasional propensity for note-spinning). I suspect he must have come into contact at some point with both men.

In the first of this Toccata Classics ‘mini-series’ featuring Gál’s output for viola, each of the four works display fastidious craftsmanship, a lean, convincing structure, melodic fecundity and a refined, economical use of materials. I can quite understand why Gál’s seemingly unassuming means of expression could pass under one’s critical antennae. One needs the luxury of time, the opportunity to repeat and get to know his pieces in order to recognise what a gifted musician he was. He seems to have been a rather modest, unassuming sort of chap too –self-promotion was clearly anathema to him. We should be grateful indeed to Martin Anderson for rallying to the cause of his chamber music especially – this is the fourth Toccata disc dedicated to it; other volumes are reviewed here, here and here.

The present issue kicks off not with chamber music, however, but with the Suite Concertante, for viola and orchestra of 1949; although this is listed in the Gál catalogue as Op 102a it is not a late work – Richard Marcus’s thorough note reminds us that much of Gál’s music was published a long time after its date of composition so later opus numbers don’t always provide clues. In fact the Suite was originally conceived for viola or alto saxophone with piano – hence Op 102a – this is its first recording in this form. The involvement of a certain Sakari Oramo is a clue as to the manifest quality of the Suite. The performance by Hanna Pakkala and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra oozes commitment and careful preparation; hearing this account might lead one to believe it’s been in their repertoire for years. Its inital Cantabile movement derives entirely from a finely-spun viola theme pitted against a gentle orchestral backcloth whose pizzicato pluckings faintly suggest Weill and/or Weimar. Gál’s writing for inner parts is inspired, for example the tossing about of the theme between oboe, flute and horn. This is generous, humane music, the counterpoint is wise rather than clever, the impact of the music subtle and slow-burning rather than showy. The second movement is marked Furioso, an interesting choice given that it conveys more in the way of jauntiness than fury and seems more English than central European, although the bridge passage that ties the threads of the panel together may evoke Hindemith to some listeners. Even Gál’s more rapid music exudes elegance. A thoughtfully crafted Con grazia movement follows; its curious theme inhabits a strange hinterland between Elgar and Hindemith and provides a perfect accompaniment to a late-Spring evening. The concluding Burla even seems to out-jaunt the second movement. If my choice of words to describe Gál’s quicker music suggests blandness, it’s clumsiness on my part – the Suite is anything but. Consider the brief descending scale in the solo viola part at 2:09 in the finale – a tiny bridge that epitomises both wonderful craftsmanship and immaculate taste. English music is hardly replete with first-class viola concertos; notwithstanding its title Gál’s Suite Concertante certainly merits that description.

The booklet quotes the composer as once saying “I was 40 before I learned to write for three voices – and 60 before I learnt to write for two”. The present Divertimento for violin and viola actually dates from 1969 by which time he was almost eighty; it is the last of three such works for various instrumental pairings. Like everything else on this issue it is more substantial than its title suggests. Its opening minute or so absolutely encapsulates this composer as the violinist delivers a theme of apparently of middle-European provenance which magically ‘Anglicises’ at the entry of the viola. The folksy double-stopping of the passage that succeeds it quite belies the Meditation label of this rewarding panel. The succeeding movement is labelled Folletti – (‘Sprites’) – a swirling puckish fantasy of Brittenish sophistication. After a tiny minuet in which the violinist wraps an understated tune around a continuo of pizzicati the Divertimento concludes with a Burletta which ornately references the folk content of the Meditation before yielding to a more lyrical passage and a lively coda which evaporates into thin air. Hanna Pakkala is joined by violinist Reijo Tunkkari in a spirited, enjoyable account – Toccata’s sound is exemplary as is the case in each of these four works.

If the Divertimento is light of spirit it’s rich in substance; the Sonata for viola and piano is of necessity more serious in tone given that it was completed in 1942, a year in which Gál lost in rapid succession his mother, aunt, sister and eighteen-year old son (a fresher at Edinburgh University) in separate but extraordinarily tragic circumstances. Having said that, this composer never seems to get too carried away by extreme depth of feeling, and the Sonata is superbly made, projecting profundity rather than mournfulness. The main theme of the first movement Adagio is simple and wistful, a distant relative perhaps of the magical opening of Rubbra’s inexplicably forgotten Piano Concerto – It develops carefully and with characteristic Gálian breadth ; there is a sense of continuous expansion before a climax of real intensity at 3:18 augurs the second half of the movement. This incorporates further development of the opening material. This is music for real connoisseurs – it tugs at one’s heartstrings and burrows its way into the long-term memory. The central panel is a minuet in which rather aptly (Gál had only recently emerged from internment - as an ‘enemy alien’- on the Isle of Man) a nostalgic waltz from Alt-Wien is transmogrified into homely new surroundings in what seems like a fleeting distraction from the vicissitudes that were enveloping the composer at the time; although the music leans more toward melancholy than tragedy. The finale is marked Allegro risoluto e vivace which doesn’t lie; it’s a purposeful march, almost as if Gál is re-booting and starting again. Its fugitive zeal subsides into a central section where a broad viola melody is demarcated by pithy piano commentaries. Dusk sets in at its conclusion - a stray hint of bitonality is perceptible in the coda which strikes a note of ambiguity. Pakkala is joined by the fine Estonian pianist Irina Zahharenkova in an account which emphasises the parity of each player’s contribution.

And the slightly earlier Trio for oboe, violin and viola is just as democratically conceived – indeed Gál viewed each movement as a three-part invention. The material for the opening Pastorale derives from a dreamy oboe theme which is developed with finely wrought counterpoint. There follow a pair of intermezzi; a mellow scherzo-like confection whose central section bounces along upon sprung rhythms and a more haunting, introspective Intermezzo agitato which is deftly tailored for these three instruments. In the final movement Gál’s future Scottish home comes to the fore in the form of a local folk tune which is subjected to a series of variations whose evolution and conception are at times Graingeresque. The tune almost disappears at the end to clear the way for the appropriation of material from the Pastorale.

81 minutes of music – four substantial and neatly varied pieces each of around twenty minutes duration constitute this excellent issue. It makes for a good lockdown evening concert – during the interval be sure to raise your glass of whatever to this fine composer whose time has surely arrived. Performances are uniformly expert and often invigorating; Toccata’s documentation and sonics want for nothing.

Richard Hanlon

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