Notes and Editorial Reviews
In every way this is a fantastic disc that listeners will want to hear again and again.
GÁL Serenade in D, Op. 41. Trio in f?, Op. 104. KRÁSA Tanec (Dance). Passacaglia and Fugue • Ens Epomeo • AVIE 2259
Hans Gál has been receiving some well-deserved, if belated, attention on disc lately. Just a couple of issues back, I reviewed a must-have recording by cellist Antonio Meneses performing Gál’s very beautiful Cello Concerto. And now, here on the present release, we have what is advertised as the complete string trios of both Gál and his close contemporary Hans Krása. Though born only nine years apart— Gál in 1890 and Krása in 1899— Gál was fortunate to escape the advancing Nazi forces into Austria, fleeing to the U.K. in 1938 and eventually settling in Edinburgh, where he died in 1987. Krása was not so lucky. He was deported first to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and then transferred to Auschwitz where he was killed in 1944. Given Krása’s much shorter life, it’s understandable that his output is considerably less than Gál’s. Neither composer, however, apparently devoted much effort to the string trio, since the contents of this CD are said to be the extent of it.
The two Gál works are recorded here for the first time, and, in terms of scale, they’re both major additions to the literature, each lasting over 25 minutes. Written in 1932, before the serious trouble began, the Serenade lives up to its title, in name, if not strictly in form. The piece is in four movements in what I would describe as a nod to the Baroque and Classical periods as reflected through the lens of an easygoing, listener-friendly modernist style that teases and tickles the ear with fractured and fragmented references to familiar pieces. Throughout the first movement (Capriccioso), for example, you’ll hear the distinctive three-note pattern that permeates the first movement of Bach’s G-Major Brandenburg Concerto. While I wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far, I’d say that to a degree Gál’s Serenade reminds me of some of Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik pieces. Gál’s score is mostly busy, breezy, and boffo, perhaps more in the manner of a divertimento than a serenade.
Just as long, but in only three movements this time, the Trio in F?-Minor is a much later work, dating from 1971, when the trouble was long over. The piece was commissioned by the London Viola d’amore Society and originally scored for violin, viola d’amore, and cello, but Gál made this version for traditional string trio at the same time. The mood is now introspective, brooding, and perhaps a bit bereft. If there’s an analog here, I’d have to say that the Trio seems to look back to the highly chromatic, freely tonal style familiar from works of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Viennese composers before they succumbed to the siren of dodecaphonism. In other words, Gál’s Trio is a nostalgic soak in a muddy pond. But mud baths are supposed to be therapeutic, and this one left me with a nice, warm glow.
The Krása pieces are considerably shorter—six minutes for Tanec and just under 10 minutes for the Passacaglia and Fugue. Tanec, or Dance, was composed in the last year of Krása’s life. With its strong rhythmic thrust, ostinato figure in the cello, and Hungarian folk flavor, the music is at first suggestive of Bartók, but as Kenneth Woods’s note indicates, the piece is meant to be evocative of trains, with the obvious reference to the boxcars that transported Krása and the millions of others to the death camps. To quote Woods, “the atmosphere ranges from eerie nostalgia, to barely contained menace, to explicit violence,” and ends in a series of manic shrieks. Written later that same year (1944), the Passacaglia and Fugue is Krása’s last completed work. It’s difficult to describe this music of broken spirit and soul. Initially, Shostakovich comes to mind in a frozen soundscape benumbed by cruel and forbidding cold. But slowly, the music rises to a pitch of bickering and physical altercation.
The recording at hand represents the Ensemble Epomeo’s disc debut. Named for the Mediterranean volcano, Mt. Epomeo, the group was founded when the three players—Caroline Chin, violin; David Yang, viola; and Kenneth Woods, cello—came together at the Festivale di Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy in 2008. It’s always difficult to judge an ensemble in unfamiliar repertoire, but I think I can say that the Epomeo’s musicians are more than up to the technical task of their business and that they sound intensely engaged in the emotional worlds of these two composers and their music. I would now look forward to hearing the ensemble in something more familiar, like Mozart’s great Divertimento in E?-Major, K 563, or the Beethoven string trios. Meanwhile, this new, excellent recording is strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
It seems that at last the star of Hans Gál is in the ascendant with symphonies (2; 3; 4), his violin concerto, cello concerto, cello works, violin and piano works, piano trios, piano duos and piano solo music, to name a few, being released in recent years. This is a vast improvement upon the situation that pertained only in 2001 when there were but three works by him that could be found on disc; today the total tops 40.
Born in Vienna of Hungarian Jewish extraction Gál not surprisingly left Germany where he had worked as Director of the Conservatory in Mainz after he was dismissed by the Nazis and his music was banned. First he returned to Vienna until Austria was annexed by Hitler in 1938 then he came to the UK though he had a hard time of it with a wife and two children and no immediate job. In May 1940 he was incarcerated due to the panicky atmosphere that pertained in Britain at the time, firstly in Huyton then in the internment camp in Douglas, Isle of Man. Though Gál was not classed as a category A alien all of whom were detained when war broke out, Churchill’s edict to “collar the lot” following the fall of France led to category B aliens and a large percentage of category C being arrested too, adding up to a total of over 27,000 internees. It is ironic that Jews who were the most obviously sympathetic to the Allies should have been included in this sweep. Eventually the folly of this policy was recognised and Gál and many others were released after a few months. For most of his long life he resided in Scotland where he added to the rich musical life there working at Edinburgh University until well beyond retirement age.
Serenade in D Op.41 dates from 1932 and is a most delightful work full of free-flowing melodic lines with an upbeat Haydnesque beginning that belies what’s to come which is altogether more contrapuntal but still of a generally whimsical character and the first movement fairly skips along its ten minute length. Gál certainly knew how to write a good tune and wasn’t afraid to do so at a time when the avant-garde brigade were flexing their musical muscles and when to be experimental was deemed to be
de rigueur. Though modern in character this music is totally beguiling and the main theme will easily become one of those little worms that play themselves over and over again in your mind and soon have you convinced that you’ve known it for years despite it being a world première recording. The second movement marked
Cantabile. Adagio is a heartfelt, beautiful little tune that while darker is so gorgeously lush that it will still cause you to smile with delight. The main theme which is introduced by the violin is taken up at the close by the viola against a wonderfully rich background. The
Menuetto is back to the Haydnesque style of the opening movement with the cello playing a significant role in conversation. The violin hovers above it in canon and one is tempted to speculate that Papa Haydn himself would have heartily approved of its inventive character. The final movement
Alla marcia is another wonderfully melodious and brilliantly scintillating piece of writing. All kinds of clever musical devices propel things along and the work finishes with a flourish.
Trio Op.104 was composed almost forty years later in 1971 to a commission from the London Viola d’Amore Society and the version here for a conventional trio was written at the same time. It is a work that is altogether darker in mood than the
Serenade as perhaps is to be expected from a composer of over 80 as opposed to one of 42. In any event it is another example of this highly individual and marvellous composer who appears never to have been at a loss to come up with fabulous tunes that win the listener over on first hearing. While the opening
Tranquillo con moto in dark and deeply reflective the
Presto is light and humorous. It dances along its short length and leads into the finale
Tema con variazione with seven distinct sections. The players’ cellist Kenneth Woods wrote the notes. He has perfectly captured the essence of this last movement which, as he puts it, incorporates “recurring cycles of despair and hope, without Gál ever tipping his hand as to whether the work is likely to end in darkness or light”. He explains further that Gál’s solution is to “avoid a resolution entirely” by concluding with an
Alla Marcia in humorous mode. This alludes to the fact that whatever happens life marches on and “The cycle of tragedy and hope is eternal, the root of all human comedy...” What better way to look at life and to share that outlook with others in musical terms that are so unambiguous.
The two other works on this disc are by a composer from the same era, the same part of the world (central Europe), and the same Jewish heritage, who suffered the fate that Gál undoubtedly would have done had he not come to Britain when he did. Hans Krása was also sent to an internment camp and the insert in the CD shows a photo of each composer alongside their camps. However, Krása ended up in Terezin in the north of his native Czechoslovakia where he was active in the busy musical life that pertained there and like other composers confined there wrote several works in these inauspicious surroundings. Then in October 1944 he was moved to Auschwitz along with fellow composers Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas, where he was sent to the gas chambers just two days after his arrival. I find the thought of the deaths of these highly talented composers almost unbearable, particularly when I hear their music and imagine what other joys they would have brought to the world had they lived. Whilst rejoicing in the life of Hans Gál who lived to the age of 97 and whose music developed over a long and productive life it is heartrending to listen to the music of Krása who died at 45. Both works here were written in his final year. Krása, in common with his fellow composers in Terezin, refused to allow their Nazi captors to crush their spirit. These works are defiant responses to the madness that The Third Reich unleashed upon the world. In
Tanec (dance) which title belies its content which is savage and biting, there are evocations of trains that contrast feelings of nostalgia with overt menace. I was reminded of Steve Reich’s
Different Trains and am pretty sure that Reich may well have drawn inspiration from this work for his own. There is so much said in such a short piece it is quite overwhelming. In
Passacaglia and Fuga, Krása’s last completed work, he expresses himself so profoundly it is enough to make you weep. Kenneth Woods’ excellent notes explain the musical structure perfectly which enables the listener to get so much more out of the music than they would without them. I’m not going to try to paraphrase or come up with my own interpretation which I couldn’t do in any case but will quote his summing up of the work as “...discussion degenerates into argument and argument descends into violence.” Who can wonder at such musical thoughts when you are knowingly heading for extermination for being born something your captors will not tolerate.
The disc leaves you feeling profoundly moved as well as drained and I can hardly imagine how it must feel to play such music. This is an extremely important musical document on all counts as it introduces us to two hitherto unrecorded works by a great 20
th century composer who exposure has at last revealed a huge talent and two works by a wonderful composer whose creative genius was snuffed out in his prime.
The Ensemble Epomeo play all four compositions with huge commitment and brilliant flair revealing every nuance in four wonderful works for string trio. These can sit alongside anything written in this genre.
In every way this is a fantastic disc that listeners will want to hear again and again.
-- Steve Arloff, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Serenade for String Trio, Op. 41 by Hans Gál
Trio for Strings, Op. 104 by Hans Gál
Tanec by Hans Krása
Period: 20th Century
Passacaglia and Fugue for String Trio by Hans Krása
Period: 20th Century
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