The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Viennese composer and Holocaust survivor Hans Gal is a modern-day Haydn who is finally getting rediscovered and recorded. Part 2 of 2.

November 23, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Sunday marked the start of Kenneth Woods Week – which will have a couple of interruptions or different posts for variety — on The Ear.

Woods is a many of many talents, interests and projects.

He is a good friend of the blog.

But more importantly, he is a distinguished graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Music who is becoming a major player on the world music scene (see Sunday’s post for details) and he is engaged in a major multi-year project: the rediscovery and revival of the Viennese composer Hans Gal. (The Ear would like to see the Madison Symphony Orchestra engage this native son for a guest stint and have him bring some Gal to Madison.)

As an introduction, here is a link to a biographical sketch of Gal, whom I expect we will hear performed more and more in the coming years, thanks in no small part to Woods and AVIE Records:

Woods (below) gave The Ear an extended interview about Gal that I am running in two parts. Today is Part 2.

Hans Gal lived a long time, from 1890 to 1987. Are there phases or periods to his work? What was his range of genres?

Gal is one of those rare talents who wrote well in just about every genre — there are operas, four symphonies, concertos for violin, piano and cello, works for solo piano (wonderfully recorded by Leon McCawley, below), string quartets, string trios and on and on. He also wrote for unusual instruments like mandolin (listen to the excerpt at the end) and viola d’amore. So far, just about every piece I’ve looked at or heard is good.

His music did evolve — the early works are more intense and extrovert. Around the beginning of the 1930’s he starts to take away some of that post-Romantic excess, and the Violin Concerto (below) is maybe the first major work in this new style. However, the Concerto, while being more elegant than some of his earlier music, is still full of a rather succulent post-Romantic harmonic language. There are some really tasty harmonies.

Even by the Concertino for Violin and Strings, written six years later, I feel like he is distilling the music to another level of clarity. The harmonies are less of their time and more uniquely his. By the Triptych, written in 1970, he’s found a really timeless language — the Violin Concerto could only have been written in the 30’s, but the Triptych? Anytime between 1880 and now!

His last works were the Fugues for solo piano, written when he was 93 — they could be by Bach, but only if Bach had heard Mahler.

Why is Gal worth rediscovering and performing?

The music has its own powerful intrinsic value. It’s worth hearing for the pleasure and transcendence it offers.

Beyond that, I think today we can see that one of the many tragedies of World War II was the extinguishing of this great, unbroken and unequaled line of musical tradition from Bach to Richard Strauss and Mahler. Most of the musicians who would have continued that tradition were executed in Auschwitz — Krasa, Ullmann, Klein and Haas would have been the next generation. Gál (below) survived, and in spite of his obscurity, thrived and developed as an artist, who found a very personal way of responding to the events of his time.

You have performed and recorded Gals’ work. What are the reactions of the critics, the public and the performers to his music?

I would say that almost every time I do a Gál work with or for people who don’t know the music, there is a sense in most of them that, while they are open to it, they assume there must be some reason his music is largely unknown.

From there, it’s easy to see the lightness and elegance of his music, the Haydn-esque qualities, as being indicative of a lack of substance, when, in fact, there is tons of substance there. However, every time I’ve done a Gál piece, I’ve been struck by how enthusiastic everyone is by the end.

One thing that is also consistent among performers is a certain level of shock at the virtuoso nature of the music — it’s much more difficult than it looks or sounds.

Do you have favorite works of Gal (below, young), or works you think are a good place to begin for people unfamiliar with him?

He was a remarkably consistent composer. The important thing with Gál is to hear the music well-played. One comment I heard early on from his daughter was that a second-rate performance of a work by Gál makes first-rate music sound fourth-rate.

I think the three discs in the AVIE series are all at least well recorded and well performed, and the music is all beautiful. Beyond, that, the best way to get to know the music is to play it or hear it performed. It’s almost all in print now, so I hope a lot of young musicians will start looking at the chamber music now. The string quartets and trios are fantastic.

What do you think – or hope – will be the future of Gal’s music going forward?

I gave a preview copy of the new disc to a friend in the industry. He wrote back a kind note saying the usual things — nice disc, et al. Months later, I ran in to him and he had become a Gál nut.

I think that if we can get more of the music out there in good recordings, it will give a lot of joy to many listeners. We’re starting a series of recordings of the four symphonies with Orchestra of the Swan in December, and we’re also planning to record the two string trios with my group Ensemble Epomeo next spring.

It’s not easy. Every new disc involves overcoming a lot of economic challenges, which has become harder than ever. Donating to the Hans Gal Society’s recording fund can really help. In the next 10 years, I’d love to see all the major works out there in good recordings and being performed everywhere.

Posted in Classical music

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