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Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Hidden Treasure
26 Unpublished Lieder (1910-1921) [59:00]
Five Songs, Op 33 (1917-21) [13:13]
Christian Immler (bass-baritone), Helmut Deutsch (piano)
rec. April 2016, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany
Texts and translations included
Reviewed in CD stereo and SACD surround
BIS BIS-2543 SACD [72:25]

It seems that Hans Gál was an inveterate songwriter during his twenties. According to his daughter Eva’s elegant and comprehensive booklet essay, he regarded the practice of lieder composition as something of an apprenticeship for his vocal writing, a training put to good use in his first two operas, Der Arzt der Sobeide (1919) and his breakthrough hit Die Heilige Ente (1923). Gál composed 67 songs between 1910 and 1921 which, due to Gál’s legendary levels of self-criticism and his unforgiving humility would be relegated in the main to his bottom drawer; classified as weggelegt (‘discarded’). His daughter reveals that his profound respect for the lieder of Schubert, Brahms and Wolf led to his modest conclusion that he could realistically add little of value to the canon. As it turned out Gál selected five of these early songs for a set published in 1929 as his Op 33, Gál’s only officially ‘approved’ work in the form – that cycle concludes this disc.

I would contend that Gál rather undersold himself. He clearly studied hard and absorbed the technical mysteries at play in the works of the masters of the form, and not just the three mentioned above. Stylistic hints of other luminaries such as Schumann, Reger and Richard Strauss crop up here and there in these songs; I even detect occasional harmonic echoes or rhythmic patterns that recall the likes of Satie and Szymanowski, contemporary figures with whom I suspect Gál would have been entirely unfamiliar. The earliest song here seems to be Lady Rosa, which dates from 1910. It’s a setting of Hermann Hesse (one of five included in this selection) and proves to be rather lovely. At least it seems that way in the hands of Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Their heartfelt alchemy transforms many of Gál’s unassuming miniatures into something close to the ‘Hidden Treasure’ claimed by the album’s title. Lady Rosa opens the recital on an enigmatic note; it precedes Nacht, an atmospheric treatment of a nature poem by Carl Busse and a peculiar tripartite mini-cycle Nachts in der Kajüte (Nights in the Cabin) to dreamlike, rather claustrophobic words by Heine.

Having heard these first five numbers, one begins to get a handle upon Gál’s perfectly formed, pianistically grateful if unflashy accompaniments and his rather tentative approach to word-setting; this might suggest a rather self-contained, pragmatic artist who was more concerned with finding his feet in the art of vocal composition than letting rip with his emotions. It’s not until the next Heine song Sternenzwiesprach (Star Dialogue), a dizzying paean to the stars and their effects on the fauna that the disc finally bursts into life with Immler’s effervescent reading.

In a brief but valuable commentary on the programme, Erik Levi makes the point that Gál’s choice in texts was unorthodox to say the least. He often deliberately selected poems eschewed by more established figures and drew from an unusually broad range of poets, presumably to avoid the potential for unflattering comparison. I counted thirteen different authors among the 31 songs on this disc. They span a period of almost 800 years, ranging from two settings by the twelfth century minnesänger Walther von der Vogelweide (Minnelied with its delightfully simple strummed accompaniment and Morgengebet), to contemporary writers such as Hesse and the gentle satire of Christian Morgenstern, whose work would continue to attract composers as the twentieth century wore on. Of the Morgenstern settings here, Gál invests the darkly mysterious Der Wolkenbaum (The Cloud Tree) with a sequence of tactfully unpredictable harmonic twists, Novembertag (November Day) is more regular, and Immler revels in the expressive potential of its sustained vocal lines. Welch ein Schweigen conveys an Alpine, almost Mahlerian freshness. These three songs seem especially fine, their deceptively simple accompaniments projecting the economy of texture which would epitomise Gál’s mature style.

By 1921 Gal was one of many ‘moderns’ to find the heady exoticism of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry conducive to their art. Blumenlied exhibits a degree of further harmonic advancement in the accompaniment, although the vocal line remains steady and grateful. Deutsch is a wonderfully understated and generous accompanist, and Immler’s rich, precise tone almost succeeds in diverting one’s attention away from the piano’s more interesting part.

The sequence of 26 early songs concludes with a quartet of Hesse settings from 1914; the martial tone of the dramatic Der böse tag (The Evil Day) is almost jarring, Immler absolutely in step with its virile drama. In contrast Rücknahme (Retraction) and Abendgespräch (Evening Conversation) are gentle and solemn, with both performers skilfully blending in a spirit of resigned communion.

The disc itself concludes with the five songs of the Op 33 set which Gál did approve for publication in 1929, although Eva Fox-Gál suggests that he only did so under some pressure from his publisher Simrock who wished to capitalise on the composer’s burgeoning success at that time. Gál certainly chose well; these numbers hang together superbly. Vergängliches (Transience) is a setting of a text by the seventeenth century poet C H von Hoffmannswaldau. Once more Immler is fully attuned to the essence of melancholy and reluctant acceptance that the composer has managed to distil. Der Wiesenbach (The Meadow Brook) and Vöglein Schwermut (The Bird of Melancholy) are two more Morgernstern settings. The former is brief, limpid and crystalline, with rippling figurations in the piano which could be ‘updated’ Schubert; the second is a more extended song with an ominous undertow which proves to be as contemporary as any of the selections on this issue, yet it’s delivered most affectingly by Immler and Deutsch. Two elegant Bethge settings, Drei Prinzessinnen (Three Princesses) and Abend auf dem Fluss (Evening on the River) round off the cycle, the accompaniment for the latter once more demonstrating Gál’s uncanny skill at evoking a watery backdrop.

Eva Fox-Gál concludes her introduction by paying fulsome tribute to the two performers, not least since the idea for this project came from them. Helmut Deutsch plays the notes with impeccable taste and understatement; he lets Gál’s music speak for itself which it does most eloquently without superfluous adumbration or interference. Christian Immler is a marvellous singer; the clarity of his diction and his response to the text is a given, but his ability to find tonal and coloristic variety in what might appear at first hearing to be a rather uniform style of song setting renders the experience of listening to the disc in one sitting as unexpectedly enjoyable. Although having said that, at this limited level of familiarity with the music. I can only, hand on heart, really identify three or four of the numbers outside the Op 33 set as ‘keepers’; perhaps this reinforces the view that Hans Gal’s integrity as a composer was underpinned by an effective, no-nonsense approach to quality control.

It will come as no surprise that the BIS sound is immaculate – natural, authentic and warm. Many listeners will enjoy hearing this through their SACD surround system; it emerges in superb detail, but as I have mentioned before, for this kind of music I prefer the undiluted intimacy that two decent speakers will unfailingly provide. The disc will be a must for admirers of Hans Gál, a legion which seems to grow by the month, as rapidly in fact as the gaps in his discography get filled. However anyone with a taste for early twentieth century lieder is unlikely to feel short changed by Gál’s subtly alluring contribution to the form.

Richard Hanlon

26 Unpublished Lieder

Lady Rosa [1:58]
Nacht [2:47]
Nachts in der Kajüte No 1 [2:31]
Nachts in der Kajüte No 2 [2:10]
Nachts in der Kajüte No 3 [2:38]
Sternenzwiesprach [1:17]
Denk' es o Seele [1:48]
Maimond [2:41]
Minnelied [1:45]
Morgengebet [2:44]
Dämmerstunde [2:41]
Glaube nur! [1:34]
Liebesmüde [2:52]
Eine gantz neu Schelmweys [3:17]
Waldseligkeit [1:56]
Der Wolkenbaum [2:09]
Novembertag [2:35]
Welch ein Schweigen [3:02]
Nachtstürme [1:28]
Blumenlied [2:50]
Schäferlied [1:36]
Abendlied [2:23]
Der böse tag [1:31]
Frag nicht! [2:22]
Rücknahme [2:10]
Abendgespräch [1:55]
Fünf Melodien (Five Songs) for medium voice and piano, Op 33
No 1, Vergängliches [2:28]
No 2, Der Wiesenbach [1:40]
No 3, Vöglein Schwermut [3:57]
No 4, Drei Prinzessinnen [2:53]
No 5, Abend auf dem Fluss [2:33]

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