FRANZ SCHUBERT & HANS GÁL—Kindred Spirits – Zehetmair cond. – Avie

by | Oct 13, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

FRANZ SCHUBERT & HANS GÁL—Kindred Spirits = SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C Major D944, “The Great”; GÁL: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 53 – Northern Sinfonia / Thomas Zehetmair – Avie AV2225 (2 discs), 55:09; 43:28 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
I’ve read some grumbling comments on the Web about Avie’s Hans Gál Symphonies series. Specifically, listeners are miffed that Avie thinks the way to market these works is to bundle them with nineteenth-century classics that point up the symphonic tradition Gál worked in. For those just dying to get their hands on the complete symphonies of Hans Gál, this is frustrating, I’m sure. For the uninitiated but open-minded collector, Avie may be on to something. Prospective buyers might be intrigued enough by the idea of seeing parallels between known and unknown quantities to take the plunge—and perhaps collect the whole series. Thomas Zehetmair and his Northern Sinfonia are dividing their labors with conductor Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan, who offer Schumann as the special guest symphonist. Zehetmair’s first disc in the series gave us Gál’s First Symphony and Schubert’s Sixth (Avie 2224), and here we have Schubert’s other C major symphony along with Gál’s Second.
Hans Gál is sometimes lumped into a category called “post-Brahmsian,” and his earliest works do sound very Brahmsian. Gál could be said to come by this honestly: he was a pupil of Eusebius Mandysczweski, a composer-musicologist who was one of Brahms’s staunchest friends and advocates. Together, Gál and his teacher brought out a complete edition of Brahms’s works in the 1920s, just as earlier, Brahms and Mandysczweski had worked together on a complete edition of Schubert’s works.
In reductionist terms, the Romantic symphony is sometimes traced through two lines: one from Beethoven through Mendelssohn and Schumann down to Brahms, the other through Schubert to Bruckner and Mahler. The first line supposedly represents the Classical-Romantics while the second represents progressive Romantics less concerned with Classical form and proportion, more committed to Romantic expansiveness and grandeur of conception. As I say, this is a reductionist idea that makes sense only up to a point. Clearly, both Brahms and the “post-Brahmsian” Hans Gál learned and drew inspiration from Schubert.
In fact, any detailed study of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony reveals that Schubert was clearly influenced by Beethoven’s special brand of motivic development. The first and last movements are built on short rhythmic motives that repeat ad infinitum; that’s what led the earliest performers and would-be performers of the work to rebel against it, especially the overtaxed string players. Yet interestingly enough, in writing about the Ninth, Gál doesn’t reference the work’s tight formal structuring but instead draws a marked contrast between Beethoven and Schubert: “It sounds like a paradox to state that [the Ninth Symphony’s] monumentality lies in the quiet repose with which one great panorama after another is spread out before us, a universe of sound such as has never appeared before or since. When, by way of comparison, one thinks of the depths and heights of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, written a few years earlier, one arrives at a better understanding than words could transmit of the unbridgeable gulf between these two compositions. That Schubert, in all innocence, could set against Beethoven’s epic and heroic ideal his own, directly opposed view of life, a quiet serenity unclouded by the stresses of will, was his greatest, though never fully appreciated dead. . . .” To me, it seems that Hans Gál and I are listening to two entirely different compositions, or maybe we’re listening to two different interpretive approaches to the same work. He seems to be hearing the work through the romantically inclined ears of a conductor such as Wilhelm Furtwangler, whereas in the last thirty or so years most performances I’ve heard have stressed the Classical rigor (and epic bearing) of Schubert’s piece.
That’s certainly the case with Thomas Zehetmair’s performance, which favors dynamism, momentum: no languishing over the beauties of Schubert’s lovely slow introduction or the tragic exclamations in the Andante con moto.  Here, as elsewhere, Zehetmair is concerned with the con moto part, keeping things moving along. Some listeners might actually prefer a little more breathing room here and there; the finale is taken at almost too fast a clip for Schubert’s motivic interplay to register. But it is exciting, and Zehetmair’s lithe little body of players can certainly keep up. The Northern Sinfonia seems especially suited to this music. They play the second movement with a tragic intensity that’s arresting and then move the scherzo along with a lightness that keeps it from seeming overlong, as it sometimes does. Zehetmair indulges in a couple of unfortunate ritards in the development section of the finale; they sound contrived given the headlong pace he generally maintains. However, wayward gestures are few indeed, and for the most part this is an estimable version of Schubert’s greatest symphony.
Next to the Ninth, especially in Zehetmair’s juggernaut reading, the Gál Second Symphony seems to breathe some of the spirit that Gál finds in the Schubert: the innocence and serenity. At least there are large pools of serenity in the work even if the third movement reveals a depth of tragic feeling that comes almost unexpectedly. The first movement is marked Introduction: Andante-Adagio. It has a prefatory quality—tranquil, reserved. Gál doesn’t show his hand here; it’s really impossible to know where the symphony is going at the end of the movement. This recalls Mahler’s slow first movements, but in Mahler we get a sense of atmosphere and direction; frankly, I’m not convinced by Gál’s Introduction. The second movement is a scherzo in all but name. Part of it has Gypsy overtones, with strummed harp chords seeming to mimic the cembalom, and here I think of Gál’s Austro-Hungarian roots—the Gypsy music, more or less authentic, of his forebears such as Haydn, Joachim, and Brahms.
Like the Introduction, the Adagio third movement is mostly serene but with a heart that grieves and finally heaves with agitation. I’m reminded of another Second Symphony of the same era, Samuel Barber’s little-known Second, whose slow movement has an icy calm about it that’s interrupted by a nightmare central section. Both are reflections of the horror of the Second World War. But as Gál wrote to his student, the conductor Otto Schmidtgen, with whom he had shared just the slow movement, “Don’t fear the worst; it is really more consolation than funeral music.” Just so, the Allegro moderato ma agitato finale seems to be a call to action, to shake off the despair of these dark years.
The work was premiered in 1948 and played a couple times more, sinking out of sight after its English debut in 1950. This is the world premiere recording. While its neglect is somewhat understandable—given that brief, equivocal first movement that gets the symphony off to an enigmatic start from which it doesn’t fully recover—the sound world that it inhabits is intriguing. The combination of Romantic gesture and mid-century angst, product of an advanced harmonic language, makes the piece worth hearing, and worth getting to know better.
This seems to be as fine a performance as the Schubert. Certainly, the symphony rings true in Zehetmair’s reading, moving convincingly from an almost stunned quiescence through pained remembrance to “consolation.” We won’t get another recording of this symphony anytime soon, so it’s good to report that Zehetmair has given it strong advocacy and that his performance has been captured in warm, atmospheric stereo. If you are ready to take the plunge into Hans Gál’s orchestral music, here’s the place to start.
—Lee Passarella

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