Classical CD Reviews

HANS GÁL: Symphony No. 2 in F; SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor – Orch. of the Swan /Kenneth Woods – Avie

A fine performance of Schumann’s Fourth, but the real attraction here is Gál’s Second, a work of deep feeling.

Published on May 22, 2013

HANS GÁL: Symphony No. 2 in F, Op. 53; SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120 – Orchestra of the Swan /Kenneth Woods – Avie AV2232, 73:11 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

This is the third installment in Avie’s four-disc series dedicated to the four symphonies of Austrian composer Hans Gál. (There is another Avie Gal series with violinist-conductor Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia.) The robust Orchestra of the Swan hails from the Bard’s hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. Some collectors have griped about this series, which teams Hans Gál with a supposed compositional kindred spirit—in the first installment, this was Franz Schubert, whose Ninth Symphony was yoked to Gál’s First. The remaining installments have paired Gál with Robert Schumann. It would have been more economical for Avie to have issued a two-CD set of the complete Gál symphonies, which would also obviate the duplication of oft-recorded and oft-collected repertory. But I find the synergy generated by these pairings to be interesting enough to justify Avie’s approach. Also, there’s always room for one more Schubert Ninth or Schumann Fourth in my collection.

Hans Gál is one of those composers classified as post-Brahmsian because they carried on the High Romantic tradition into the twentieth century with few concessions to the advent of musical modernism. Despite his conservative style, Gál managed to build quite a reputation as composer and professor  at the Conservatory of Mainz. However, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, Gál, a Jew, was released from his position. He returned to his native Austria, but with the coming of the Anschluss, he fled with his family to England in 1938. Adding insult to injury, when war broke out the British considered him an enemy alien and interned him along with German prisoners of war. Following his release, he relocated to Edinburgh, later joining the faculty of the University of Edinburgh.

Gál never reclaimed the estime that he enjoyed on the Continent, and indeed he had doubts that his Second Symphony (1943) would ever be heard in public so he excerpted the Adagio third movement for stand-alone performance. Eventually, the symphony was performed in its entirety, though like most of Gál’s works it quickly disappeared from the concert hall, receiving its first performance since 1951 by the Orchestra of the Swan just last year. It was written during a time of professional strife and personal tragedy for Gál, whose aunt and sister took their own lives to escape deportation to Auschwitz. This twin disaster was followed by the suicide of Gál’s son at the age of eighteen in 1942.

Like Gál’s First Symphony, the Second begins unconventionally with a slow movement serving as an introduction to the whole. The opening is a more substantial movement than that of the First Symphony, which for me seriously unbalances the latter work. In fact, the Second Symphony is an altogether more appealing and successful piece for my money. The wry second movement scherzo is quite memorable in its strutting gestures, its almost flippant melody, while the following Adagio is the grieving heart of the work, a dark elegy that somehow concludes with quiet uplift. The finale starts life as a roiling, boiling minor-key cauldron of a piece, but that menacing opening gives way to a bustling section with much more positive energy about it. As with the Adagio, the movement comes to a quietly contemplative close that seems to hint at hope in the face of tragedy.

Whether you find the pairing with Schumann’s Fourth Symphony apt or not, Kenneth Woods and his band give this work a spirited reading; and the lean sound the Orchestra of the Swan produces is actually a plus given the fact that Schumann introduced a certain bloat into the orchestration when he revised it in 1851 after its less-than-successful premiere ten years earlier. Commentators have long complained about the frequent doubling of string and wind parts in this version, but here the piece comes up sounding fresh, at least to my ears. My only complaint is that the trombones don’t produce much heft in finale, where Schumann really whips them up. Either they were placed a bit too far from the microphones (the whole orchestra seems to be miked more distantly in this work) or they weren’t feeling their oats on the day of the recording. Otherwise, I’m as pleased with the performance of the Schumann as I am with the Gál, and given the real quality of Gál’s symphony, I don’t mind that this makes about the tenth Schumann Fourth in my collection!

—Lee Passarella

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