Thursday 12 February 2015

The Orchestra of the Swan conducted by Kenneth Woods give absolutely first class performances of Hans Gál’s four symphonies on a new collection from Avie

Hans Gál (1890-1987) was born near Vienna in 1890 and after considerable success in the 1920s, was appointed Director of the Conservatory in Mainz.  Hitler's rise to power in 1933 led to his dismissal and the banning of all his works. He returned to Vienna but was again forced to flee by Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938. He arrived in Britain and settled in Edinburgh, where he remained active until his death in 1987.

Gál was a prolific composer, his opus numbered works reaching 110 amongst which are four operas, choral works, four symphonies, concertos, chamber works including four string quartets and piano works.

Hans Gál’s four symphonies have been recorded by Avie Records with the Orchestra of the Swan  conducted by Kenneth Woods . These have now been brought together in a newly released two disc set.


Gál’s symphonies span much of Gal’s compositional life, dating from 1927 to 1974 thus giving a good overview of his orchestral music.

The Moderato of Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 30 (1927) opens gently with the strings in a fine melody that is shared, first by the woodwind then brass as the tempo and dynamics increase, leading to a lively rhythmic theme. Soon the music slows with some beautifully transparent orchestral writing before rising centrally to a climax, powerful and dynamic. There is some lively, colourful orchestration and later a lovely moment when shimmering strings underlay the rest of the orchestra. Towards the end, the orchestra falls to a quiet, gentle passage as the music leads to the coda with lovely individual instrumental contributions.

In the Burleske a theme for bassoon and pizzicato strings is quickly taken by the woodwind against a rhythmic orchestral accompaniment, full of wit and irony. There are moments of drama contrasting with beautifully written passages for wind. Centrally a flowing melody arrives, which soon picks up the pace to charge ahead with many individual instrumental contributions before broadening for the attractive little coda to end this brilliantly written movement.

Woodwind and lower strings open the lovely Elegie with a fine oboe theme which is then shared around. Soon a staccato theme arrives which is also shared around the orchestra before, centrally, an exquisite string theme with subtle little dissonances in the counterpoint. The music rises to a peak before a clarinet brings a return to the quieter, gentler opening stance. Soon there is another climax before the strings lead through a very fine passage pointed up subtly by pizzicato basses and harp to bring about the hushed coda.

A trumpet motif opens the Rondo, quickly taken up by the strings as the music dances ahead. Soon a marching theme appears, but the music speeds ahead with many fine orchestral ideas building in drama before falling to be rather funereal , lightened by a flute before brass enter and with the woodwind lead the orchestra to a lively coda.

This symphony, the only one to be written before his flight to Britain, is a fine achievement.

By the time Gál came to write his Symphony No. 2 in F Major, Op. 53 (1942/43) he had suffered the loss of his homeland, internment as an ‘enemy alien’ in Britain, the death of his mother, the death of his aunt and sister who took their own lives to avoid deportation to Auschwitz and the death of his youngest son who, obviously severely affected by all of these events, then took his own life. Despite all of these appalling events he managed to complete his second symphony in 1943.

The lower strings open the Introduction: Andante – Adagio before an oboe joins in a melancholic melody. The theme is shared around before the strings develop the idea, becoming rather passionate. The theme tries to rise which it manages to do, pointed up by timpani and brass. A solo violin leads the music in an ardent theme before a lovely gentler section over which horns gently intone. Gál weaves a very fine tapestry of orchestral sounds especially in the darker passage as the music leads to the quiet coda.

The symphony gains energy for the first time in the lively Allegro energico - Molto moderato with a fine sweep, Gál’s lovely use of woodwind is much in evidence. Soon the music falls to a lovely section shared between flute, oboe and various string instruments before the orchestra leads back to its former lively nature to end.

The Adagio opens with the lower strings in a serious and subdued theme, slowly leading on as the orchestra develop their lovely melody, an inspired idea. Soon an oboe takes up the theme before various other woodwind instruments, including a flute, develop the theme further. The orchestral texture richens as the music builds in emotion but a quieter moment arrives as the music becomes more tranquil, woodwind leading the way. Suddenly the strings sound out dramatically, with anguish before falling to a hush, allowing the woodwind to lead ahead again. There are agitated moments before the gently flowing theme leads to the quiet coda.

The Allegro moderato ma agitato grows from the basses as woodwind lead the theme forward, full of agitation, in a series of upward surges. Soon the music quietens with a sense of impending drama but the woodwind lighten the atmosphere as the music moves ahead quickly. A lighter, flowing theme arrives with the music moving through some fine passages as it is developed, later rising to a climax before the lighter mood returns as the music dances ahead but slows for the thoughtful, beautifully orchestrated coda.

Gál created a tremendous symphony out of the most tragic of circumstances.  

By the time of his Symphony No. 3 in A Major, Op. 62 (1951/52) Gál was established in Britain though the work had to wait two years before a performance. It is in three movements.

Upper strings and oboe lead in the opening of the Andantino - Allegro vigoroso e passionate, a wistful theme to which the lower strings soon add weight as a flute shares the melody with the oboe. The music rises up with timpani before leading forward until suddenly the tempo and rhythm increases as the allegro arrives. The tension increases as the music rises in dynamics with more timpani strokes but before long there is a quieter, more delicate passage from a flute and clarinet over a string accompaniment. Gál weaves a fine orchestration as the movement develops, rising to some fine outbursts of passion and emotion. Eventually the music gains a dramatic forward drive before the music lightens a little as it leads to the lovely little coda.

The Andante tranquillo e placido has a lovely gentle momentum, full of fine woodwind writing, rising up at one point before falling again as the gentle opening tempo returns and the music is beautifully developed before the hushed coda.

Wind and pizzicato strings open the Allegro molto moderato before a settled rhythm is found and the music flows quickly forward. There are many fine moments as the music progresses, buoyant and animated, transparently and skilfully orchestrated. There is more delightful woodwind writing before the lovely coda. This brilliantly conceived music is a joy.  

Although Gál’s Symphony No. 4 (Sinfonia concertante), Op. 105 (1974) returns to a four movement format, it is unusual in that it uses a chamber orchestra with four soloists, violin, cello, flute and clarinet. For this performance Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan are joined by David Le Page (violin) , Christopher Allan (cello), Diane Clark (flute) and Sally Harrop (clarinet) .

The Improvisazione - Molto moderato - Allegro moderato rises up in the strings before a clarinet appears to take the melody forward in a very attractive theme that is repeated but to which the cello, flute and violin are added. These instruments weave a fine tapestry before the whole orchestra enter to firmly take the theme forward. The concertante players return to continue weaving the fine melody before the music rises up in the orchestra in a very fine passage occasionally with the feel of Richard Strauss.  Eventually a broader orchestral passage arrives, before the quartet returns but it is the orchestra that leads us to the resolute coda.

The flute leads the opening of the Scherzo leggiero - Vivace ma non presto soon joined by the rest of the concertante group underpinned by the orchestra in this attractive music in a somewhat lighter vein, full of joy and vivacity. Again Gál creates a very fine texture of instrumental sounds. Soon the concertante ensemble bring a particularly lovely section, a little more serious and subdued, but before long the flute leads the way to the lighter more buoyant mood of the opening and it is this buoyant, joyful mood that leads to the coda.

The orchestra opens the Duetto – Adagio before the solo violin joins in a fine melody. An oboe joins followed by the cello, then violin, all supported by the orchestra. The concertante instruments weave a terrific tapestry of sound within the orchestra with such finely transparent writing before leading to a rather wistful and beautifully conceived coda.

The final movement, Buffoneria - Allegro molto Vivace, has a lovely rhythmic bounce with the concertante players sounding through the light orchestral texture. These are a really fine concertante group, with the orchestra and concertante textures beautifully woven, a real delight. Eventually the music develops some variations that are great fun before leading to a delightful coda.

This symphony is a real gem.

On the evidence of these symphonies Gál was a very fine composer, at times inspired. The Orchestra of the Swan conducted by Kenneth Woods are absolutely first class bringing the finest performances one could wish for.

With first rate recordings from the Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, England and first rate notes from the conductor, this is a release well worth acquiring.

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