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Hans GÁL (1890-1967)
Das Lied der Nacht, Op 23 (1924-25) [137:07]
Dramatic Ballad in three acts
Lianora, Princess of Sicily – Lina Liu (soprano); Hämone, Lady-in-waiting – Susann Vent-Wunderlich (soprano); The Princess-Abbess – Gritt Gnauck (mezzo-soprano); Tancred, Lianora’s cousin – Rhys Jenkins (baritone); The Chancellor – Oliver Weidinger (bass-baritone); Ciullo, the boatman/The Nameless Singer – Ralph Ertel (tenor); Opernchor und Extrachor des Theaters Osnabrück;
Osnabrücker Symphonieorchester/Andreas Hotz
rec. 2018, OsnabrückHalle, Europasaal, Germany
German libretto and English translation included
CPO 555 186-2 [54:25 + 82:42]

Until two or three years ago I blush to admit that I was unaware of the music of Hans Gál. Then the enthusiastic reviews by colleagues inspired me to investigate his four symphonies in the excellent recordings by Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan (review ~ review ~ review ~ review). Impressed by what I heard, I explored further and discovered some of Gál’s concertos (review ~ review). However, I was aware there was a great deal of his music that remained a closed book to me, so when the opportunity arose to hear a recording of one of his operas, I was keen to take it.

Das Lied der Nacht (The Song of the Night) was the third of Hans Gál’s four operas. It was composed between 1924 and 1925 and therefore pre-dates his First symphony by a couple of years. The opera received its premiere in Breslau in 1926. Further productions followed in Germany and Austria until 1930 but shortly thereafter the composer and his music fell foul of the Nazi regime. Happily, Gál escaped from Austria to Britain in 1938. Here he endured initial difficulties, including a period of war time internment, but after the war he obtained a teaching post at Edinburgh University which gave him the security of an academic career though the music that he wrote made little headway. It is good that belatedly his music is now attracting attention on CD.

The opera’s libretto is by the Moravian German poet, Karl Michael von Levetzow (1871-1945). The tale is an unlikely one, as is so often the case in opera. The action takes place in the kingdom of Sicily, though the time in history at which the story is set is never specified. The inference, though, is that the time frame is the Middle Ages. When the opera opens the king has been dead for almost three months during which the kingdom has been administered by the Chancellor. By law, Princess Lianora, the king’s sole heir, must choose a husband and proclaim him to an assembly of the people within three months of the king’s death – and the deadline is a couple of days away. If she fails to select a husband the assembly will make a choice and, with suitors gathering, the Chancellor fears a civil war. The princess is refusing to select a husband, much to the chagrin of Prince Tancred, her prime suitor, who most people believe would be the ideal match.

In Act I, Lianora seeks the counsel of the formidable Princess-Abbess – the sister of her dead father - and it emerges that her reluctance to select a husband is explained by her fear of the burden which has fallen on her following her father’s death. She goes so far as to request refuge in the convent but the Abbess refuses. Hinting at a ‘past’ in her own life, the Abbess tells Lianora that she must seek as her husband the man who makes her tremble. With Lianora left alone, we discover that what really makes her tremble is a song which she has heard an unknown (male) singer sing at night. The singer, we discover, is her boatman, Ciullo (though Lianora herself is unaware that Ciullo is the singer.)

Near the start of Act II there’s a lengthy scene between Lianora and Hämone, her Lady-in-waiting. Hämone tells her mistress the story of the mysterious singer, whose identity is unknown (‘Der Namenlose Sänger’), jokingly suggesting at one point that he could be the ideal husband. However, by the time she leaves her mistress, Hämone believes that Lianora really wants to be married to Tancred and, secretly, she resolves to bring him to Lianora’s chamber to press his suit to her. However, in the meantime Lianora has heard Der Namenlose Sänger and they have met each other. Without knowing his name, she falls for him after an ardent encounter. They are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Tancred who foolishly seeks to force his affections on Lianora. The Singer intervenes and sees Tancred off after a struggle. Lianora declares that tomorrow she will name the Singer as her husband. The dénouement arrives in Act III where Lianora makes her public choice but then the Singer reveals himself to be the humble boatman. Seeing her shame at her love for one who has turned out to be a common boatman, he kills himself with a dagger that Lianora had given him. Stricken with remorse, Lianora renounces her royal rank and follows Ciullo’s body as it is borne into the convent for his funeral. She will remain in the convent, following the example of her aunt, the Abbess.

An unlikely tale, you may think, but there are many opera plots that are a good deal more unlikely and/or flimsy. Gál and von Levetzow make the characters credible, especially Lianora, Hämone and the Abbess. I found Gál’s music thoroughly convincing for several reasons, including its melodic invention, its wonderful orchestration and its dramatic pacing. Crucially, he writes extremely well for the human voice.

The role of Lianora requires a soprano with an excellent top range but, though the demands on the singer are significant at times, never are these demands in any way outlandish. On the contrary, the part of Lianora is characterised by wonderful, lyric-dramatic writing for the soprano voice with fine melodic invention at its heart. I would imagine that it’s a very satisfying role to sing and the Chinese soprano, Lina Liu makes a strong impression.

The other two female principals are also impressive. Susann Vent-Wunderlich sings very well indeed as Hämone; the peak of her performance – and the peak of the role, too - comes in the extended scene with the princess early on in Act II. As the Abbess, Gritt Gnauck is very much the grande dame. She offers a strong portrayal of the imperious Abbess; it’s no wonder everyone, both inside and outside the convent, is in awe of her.

I don’t think I’ve previously encountered the Welsh baritone, Rhys Jenkins. He’s a member of the Osnabrück company and though his biography in the booklet mentions some UK engagements I wonder if most of his career to date has been in Europe. He’s a strong and determined Tancred. Ralph Ertel is suitably ardent of voice in the dual role of Ciullo and the Nameless Singer while Oliver Weidinger is a convincingly concerned Chancellor.

I’ve not heard the Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra before but it’s clear from this recording that they’re a very accomplished ensemble. That’s as well, because Gál’s orchestral writing is of critical importance in this score. At all times the orchestra fulfils a vital function as illustrator and amplifier of the action on stage. The scoring is a constant delight although I should emphasise that at no time does the orchestra draw attention away from the singers. There are several purely orchestral episodes, all of which contain excellent music, but I must single out the orchestral Prelude to Act II. This is a lovely nocturnal episode in which Gál’s imaginative scoring and melodic invention simply ravish the ear. I should also add that the Osnabrück choruses make a very good showing; they’re mainly involved in Act III. Although the score is new to me, I have the distinct impression that Andreas Hotz conducts it very well.

The music of Das Lied der Nacht is very attractive. In the first two Acts especially there’s winning lyricism in the writing. However, the dramatic episodes are powerful. It’s unfortunate that Hans Gál wrote only one more opera after this because on this evidence he had a fine feeling for music-drama.

CPO’s production values are very good indeed. I think this recording was made under studio conditions but possibly around the time that live performances were given. The sound is very good and well balanced and you can hear an abundance of detail from the score. The voices are very well balanced against the orchestra. The booklet contains the full libretto along with an English translation and there’s also a valuable set of notes, including a synopsis and a biographical essay by the composer’s daughter, Eva Fox-Gál. The first Act, which is the longest, is accommodated on the first CD while the other two Acts occupy te generously-filled second disc.

This is the first of Hans Gál’s operas to be recorded. The recording has been done stylishly and anyone who, like me, has caught the Hans Gál ‘bug’ should hasten to investigate it. Das Lied der Nacht is a very worthwhile score in its own right but I think it’s also an important addition to our expanding knowledge of this fine composer. Who knows: one day his other operas may make it onto CD.

John Quinn

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