Posthumous fame, or at least recognition, to which the recording industry contributes can help
composers back from a peripheral postion to a fairer, if belated realignment within the ranks of the
rich tradition they have always belonged to. Thus is the case of Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) and Hans Gál(1890 - 1987), two major scions of the Viennese high musical culture who are wonderfully conjoined on two new CDs under the heading "Kindred Spirits." The performances by the Northern Sinfonia under Thomas Zehetmair, include première recordings of Gáls's symphonies nos 1 and 2.
Their two biographies clearly show with what faith in their personal and inalienable voices and despite severe tribulations threy kept going even without the motor of public esteem.
Schubert wrote prolifically (and seemingly without effort); the music is timelessly beautiful. He rarely received exposure beyond his own private circle, owing perhaps to the over-prominence of his mighty contemporary Beethoven, and he died at a tragically early age.
Hans Gál wrote prolifically and seemingly without effort - music too, which is timelessly beautiful - and achieved, while still quite young, a strong reputation as a composer, teacher, writer and musicologist; he was widely disseminated all over Germany and Austria, before losing all official posts in the wake of Nazi politics. There followed loss of members of his family and livelihood, later even losing historical "relevance," if one applies the doubtful criteria of postwar modernist perceptions, and indeed Gál lived on to be almost a hundred.
The symphonies, appearing separately on 2 CDs (Schubert 6/Gál 1, Avie Records AV2224; and Schubert 9/ Gál 2, AV 2225) bring out all that unites and distinguishes these two Viennese masters, with state-of-the- art quality both in the precision and warmth of the performances and their enshrinement on disc. Rarely can the composers themselves have heard playing like this in their respective lifetimes.
Schubert's 6th (1818) is a work of a young man just turned 21. It breathes bright, Italian freshness and vivacity, rendered in true chamber-music spirit on the first of the CDs. The key of C major speaks for itself to go by the infectious energy and fecundity of Schubert's ideas, if so, it is more than a work-sheet for the later, "Great" C major Symphony which is found on the second CD, issued as a double-disc.
Gál's 1st Symphony dates from 1927 , a work planned as a competition entry to mark the 1928 Schubert Centenary in Austria. It wasn't his first attempt at a symphony, but was deemed worthy of the title No. 1with its greater maturity and in view of Gal's burgeoning success at the time. More than the music written in the second half of his life which lived largely in Scotland (he died in 1987!) the music of his Austro-German years is truly post- and pan-romantic, eclectic, rich and multi-layered, whether vocal, operatic, for chamber or symphonic forces, the larger works employing the rich orchestral tapesty common back then; yet his own voice remains intimate and selective, a singing and refined style despite the complexities of harmony and counterpoint. In evidence too is a sensitive questing linearity and an on-going rhythmic drive echoing perhaps Mahler. But similar traces can be readily discerned in the music of his contemporaries Berg, Shostakovitch, Hindemith, Gershwin, Martinu and "Les Six," and thus Gál is much more than a mere acolyte, clinging onto the raft of the post-Brahmsian symphonic tradition. The Northern Sinfonia und Zehetmair give virtuosic proof of how good this music is - sui generis - it is, as the recordings show, sophisticated, colourful, witty and profound by turn and autonomous.
In the second CD's booklet we can read Gál's words of acknowledgement for Schubert. Language was also a very powerful means for his expression as his numerous and readable books show, such as "Franz Schubert and the Essence of Melody, London, (Gollancz)". By contrast, Schubert placed no trust in the power of his own verbal reflections and it is a moot point, whether we agree that he (Schubert), as Gál says, aimed to offset Beethoven's epic heroic idealism with his (ie Schubert's) view of the world, unsullied by such efforts of "will", (see the above book for the original quotation in English) This rather German dialectic can perhaps best be read as echoing a personal creative urge inGál himself.
At any rate we can discover much in the "Great" 9th Symphony that suggests instability and imminent implosive forces and an exertion of titanic will-power, and the recording shows these moments unerringly, in technical sound quality too. Chamber music for symphony orchestra at a knife's edge. The music's urbane surface, the stage, as it were, is glowingly lit and sremain epically so. Schubert's life and last works show this was sadly his last attempt at the grand orchestral canvas.
Following this comes the 2nd Symphony his later compatriot Gál wrote during the war years (1942 - 43) and it begs the question, as so often, whether anyone composed at this time except in response to the pressure of shocking events and experiences A question which is difficult to answer in Gál's case. His own life was never the primary source for his musical outpourings. In the opening movement's Andante - Adagio there is, for sure, a pervasive fragile and somber melancholy, a Brahms-like restraint, cross-cut with fearful chromatics and underlying pedalpoints which seem to lament the loss of so much. Tragedy lurks behind this light curtain. In the second movement (allegro energico - molto moderato) an almost pastel-shaded reminiscence of the folk idiom of his adopted home is there, although Gál's orchestral brush derives more from continental Europe than the watery shores of the British Isles. Delius, Bax, Vaughan Williams & co, though there might be reminders, were also inspired by the great continental mainstream. The 3rd movement (Adagio) could even pass for a film score and was originally entitled "Elegy". Here a rich meandering sensuality is restrained in its course by Gál's formal control and customary
multi-layered transparency. And yet in all his music to have come my way I have never encountered a more brutal interruption than the one seven minutes downstream! Following this is hard and the jovial main theme of the Finale (allegro moderato ma agitato) has some trouble regaining its pure musical discourse particularly after the sombre opening bars.
The pairing of the two composers' respective 1st and 6th, and 2nd and 9th symphonic essays is not intended to reveal any secret agenda, but one delights at the artistic conception and performances of four major works of the older and more recent Viennese tradition. A treasure store for anyone interested in getting to know, perhaps for the first time, music beyond limiting categories and historical over-simpification. .
Nicholas Selo October 2011