Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 1.
Symphony No. 1
Kenneth Woods, cond; O of the Swan
AVIE 2233 (61:07)
Hans Gál must have seemed a counter-revolutionary in 1927 Vienna with the appearance of his First Symphony. An unpretentious, light-hearted work in Classical four-movement form, it could not have been further removed from the vast symphonic statements of Mahler that preceded it. Gál certainly knew Mahler––he was present at the
first performance of Mahler’s Sixth––but his models were Schubert and (to a lesser extent) Schumann. Gál’s publishers insisted that he change the title to Sinfonietta, and that is how it first appeared, but it is still a symphony: one of the old school in spirit, though not a pastiche, that makes no claims to profundity. (How refreshing!)
Gál’s four symphonies (excluding two youthful attempts that the composer discarded) have now been recorded. To some degree they all share the same attributes: transparent orchestration, lilting themes, passing moments of humor and lyrical beauty, effortless counterpoint, and formal concision. The First remains my favorite. When the opening slow introduction suddenly builds to a perfect cadence to land at a bustling
accompanying figure, we know exactly where we are headed and feel we are in safe hands. All the listener has to do is relax and relish the flow of musical ideas. A cheeky Burlesk follows, not at all sardonic in the usual early 20th-century style, then a warm Elegie and a boisterous final Rondo. The symphony was submitted to the famous (even infamous) competition to celebrate the Schubert centenary; in the event, Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony won first prize, but there is no question which of the two is truly Schubertian.
This disc marks the completion of Woods’s survey of Gál’s symphonies on disc, but it is the second recording of No. 1. Its predecessor, also on the Avie label and released as recently as 2011, coupled No. 1 with Schubert’s No. 6 (under the overall title
), and featured Thomas Zehetmair conducting the Northern Sinfonia (of England). Zehetmair also recorded Gál’s Second (with Schubert’s Ninth) and seemed set to continue the series, but Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan took over and have now done all four. In
36:5 I wrote a Hall of Fame review of Zehetmair’s disc, not because I think it is an iconic recording but because I believed it had gotten short shrift from reviewers (mainly because of the conductor’s individual take on the Schubert) and I went in to bat for it. I thought at the time that Zehetmair was moulding his interpretations pretty freely with regard to tempo, and that is now confirmed by comparing his performance of Gál’s First Symphony to Woods’s more straightforward one. The difference is like reading a poem (Woods) or having it read to you by a great actor with all his personal inflections (Zehetmair). The timings of the two do not differ significantly, but Woods tends to stick to the tempos he sets, a more idiomatic approach in such traditionally constructed music. Zehetmair wins hands down in the scherzo, however, which has greater character in his performance; Woods is broader––more Germanic, in fact––in the Rondo. Both discs are beautifully played and frankly I would not be without either.
Steven Ritter (in
35:6) called the recording quality of Woods’s version of the Second Symphony “boomy and undefined.” I would not go that far in describing the sound on the new disc, but I see what he means; Zehetmair’s sound is more polished. Neither Ritter nor James A. Altena (
35: 2) cared for Gál’s music. True, it is unprepossessing, not instantly memorable (but I don’t believe I have heard any new piece of symphonic music that I would call instantly memorable for 20 years; a function of age no doubt), and yet there is a certain rightness to it: the quality I mention above that lets the music as opposed to the listener do the work.
Woods has coupled Gál’s symphonies with the four of Robert Schumann. The latter have received spirited readings, their textures presented with the clarity that comes from chamber-sized forces. His “Spring” Symphony is no exception; it conveys all the celebratory joyfulness we associate with spring. Most reviewers have complained about having to duplicate the Schumann symphonies on disc in order to get the Gáls, which seems fair enough. Fortunately, Woods’s Schumann is worth hearing.
I recommend this disc and continue to enjoy Zehetmair’s version as well (and I like his idiosyncratic Schubert).
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in D major by Hans Gál
Orchestra of the Swan
Period: 20th Century
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