It is thanks to the efforts of people like Kenneth Woods that the
music of Hans Gál is gradually becoming better known. It is
quite shameful that a composer as good as he was should have lived
amongst us, and taught so many students, for forty years, yet should
still have to be brought out from the shadows into the light of recognition.
Having escaped with his family from Nazi Germany to Britain in 1938
he found himself interned in 1940 by an overzealous government. He
found himself alongside German prisoners of war, many of them Nazis.
As if that were not enough first his mother died in March 1942 and
then the following month his aunt and sister killed themselves to
avoid being sent to Auschwitz. All of this was too much for his young
18 year old son Peter who took his own life in December that same
year. Against this background it is all the more surprising that he
should write a Second Symphony which is an overwhelmingly peaceful
one, full of the most passionately lyrical and truly beautiful music
that one could wish for.
It seems that Gál was well aware of the prevailing mood in
the late 1940s in terms of taste. It seemed that the musical establishment
wanted to turn its back on everything that smacked of the past when
it came to contemporary compositions. He was so convinced he would
not get his symphony performed that he submitted its adagio as a standalone
piece which his friend and champion Otto Schmidtgen premièred
in Wiesbaden in 1947. He gave its first complete performance in that
city one year later. It was then given two performances by one of
Gál’s former students in 1950 and 1951 after which it
was never played again until the Orchestra of the Swan revived it
Once heard it seems both cruel and inconceivable that it should have
remained in oblivion for so long. However, in common with many other
composers writing after the war, Gál’s music was considered
too ‘old hat’ by the powers that be at the time. They
were busily promoting the works of people like Webern, Schoenberg,
Stockhausen and the twelve toners rather than anything by anyone brave
enough to doggedly continue to write ‘tunes’.
This attitude which mercifully no longer exists prevented the public
from getting to know works by other composers such as George Lloyd,
Berthold Goldschmidt, Alan Bush and many others. What it has lead
to is surprise when works by such people are heard that there were
composers writing in the post-war years who produced such lyrically
tuneful and melodiously inventive compositions. These have stood the
test of time and are emerging to find new audiences eager to discover
what they’ve been missing. People’s reaction to music
is so subjective that it is difficult to put into words. This is precisely
why music ‘reaches parts that other things cannot reach’.
That said the first movement acts as an introduction to the entire
symphony and establishes the work’s lyrically calm nature. This
is followed by a wonderfully witty second which is bright and energetic.
It has at its core a most memorable tune that will I’m sure
become one of those ‘earworms’ that will play itself over
and over again in my mind for a considerable period. It is easy to
see how Gál believed that the adagio could take on a life of
its own. It is so richly romantic and full of such gorgeous melodies
that one could never tire of hearing but as listeners will readily
discover it makes even more organic sense when heard as an integral
part of the symphony as a whole. The finale gathers together all the
strands of the symphony in a kind of summation. The final notes indicate
the belief that the consolation so deeply expressed in the adagio
will come at last. What a perfect antidote to the horrors taking place
at the time it was written. How readily audiences would have responded
to its message had they but had the opportunity of hearing it then.
On a recent radio programme I heard the author David Mitchell. His
novel Cloud Atlas
has been recently released as a film and
he told his interviewer how envious he was of composers because they
are able to go a step beyond words to express innermost feelings in
a way that writers simply cannot do. Hans Gál’s Second
Symphony is a perfect illustration of that.
This excellent series has coupled the symphonies of Hans Gál
with those of Robert Schumann who Gál admired so much and about
whom he wrote an extremely authoritative book. On this disc Gál’s
symphony is paired with Schumann’s Fourth which Gál had
a particularly high opinion of. He wrote ‘If the Third Symphony
represents Schumann’s closest approach to symphonic monumentality,
the Fourth Symphony is his most ingenious experiment in form’.
It is even more impressive when one considers that despite its being
known as his Fourth it was in fact the second that Schumann wrote;
the Third was the last he composed. However, the Fourth was considerably
revised and only published ten years after he had completed the first
version. When it was first performed in its original version it met
with a muted response. This was partly due, it seems, to a reportedly
rather lacklustre performance. This was conducted by Ferdinand David
the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s concertmaster rather than Schumann’s
friend Mendelssohn who had made such a success of introducing the
world to Schumann’s first ‘Spring’ symphony.
In Kenneth Woods’ excellent booklet notes he describes the final
version’s first movement as representing ‘one of the most
original reimaginings of sonata form of the post-Beethoven era’.
The movement’s main theme is passionate, powerfully stated and
memorable and is wonderfully developed throughout its length. The
second subject, introduced two-thirds of the way through evolves into
‘an ecstatic coda, which eschews any Beethovenian restoration
of order and stability’ as Woods puts it. The short Romanze
is more of a gentle interlude rather than a full-blooded romantic
outpouring. The brief return of the first movement’s opening
theme is toned down in delivery from portentous to light and airy.
A contrast is then created with the Scherzo which is rather austere
followed by a trio which completes the movement in a more relaxed
atmosphere. The final movement, which follows seamlessly, is very
satisfying as a conclusion to all that has gone before. There are
impressive outbursts of brass and some marvellous themes which carry
the symphony to its end with an exciting flourish. Kenneth Woods puts
a cogent argument in favour of the revised version from 1851 as opposed
to the original of 1841 which some people argue is what Schumann “really
meant”. I’ve always been a huge fan of Schumann’s
piano music but have to admit that I have not felt quite the same
admiration for the symphonies. This recording has helped me in a reappraisal.
Listening to these two symphonies back to back I was struck by the
fact that one hundred years separate them. One would never have guessed
and this brings me back to some of my opening remarks about Gál
and the trouble he had in getting the recognition he so richly deserved.
On Woods’ website I was drawn to read a really interesting article
by Anne Midgette which first appeared in the Washington Post
in 2012. She concludes by saying that his music was ‘elegant,
adeptly constructed and unashamedly tonal, even beautiful’ and
that it ‘hearkens back to a bygone tradition of Viennese romanticism
that wasn’t what the music world thought composers should be
writing in the late 20th
century’. That explains
why, when the symphonies were released in 2011 and 2012 they were
all world première recordings*. This condemns the ‘music
world’ of the late 20th
century while creating a
huge debt of gratitude for the steadfast resolve of Kenneth Woods.
To hear the symphonies now and then to try to imagine not being able
to is almost inconceivable. Woods has done the ‘music world’
of the 21st
century a huge favour in making these wonderful
works known to us. Both the Gál and the Schumann symphonies
are played as wonderfully here as they could possibly be. The Orchestra
of the Swan is a band of superlative players whose commitment to the
music matches that of its leader and it shows in every note. This
is a fantastic release and the series as a whole will, I hope, exert
some pressure upon the programmers to include Gál’s symphonies
in concerts so that an even wider public can get to know them.
* Since then Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia have recorded
Gál’s Symphonies 1 & 2 coupled with Schubert Symphonies
6 & 9 on two discs entitled 'Kindred Spirits'.
See also review by Dan
Masterwork Index: Schumann