Notes and Editorial Reviews
Unfailingly mellifluous, ideationally and dynamically varied, and rewarding.
Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of his Tchaikovsky Competition gold medal with this brand-new recording for Avie. It couples an umpteenth recording of Elgar's famous Cello Concerto with the premiere of the one by Hans Gál. Similarities between the two works are self-evident: not just the length or first movements in E minor, but the fact that both composers wrote them at a time when their brand of elegiac lyricism, almost pre-war nostalgia, had become unfashionable, at least in more rarefied intellectual circles.
Though this is the first appearance of Gál's Concerto, his
music is nowadays surprisingly well served by recordings. To begin with, Avie are currently three releases into a series devoted to the Symphonies, begun last year. The lattermost also featured the Northern Sinfonia, and they play again on a slightly earlier Avie release showcasing Gál's concertante works for violin. The violinist there was Annette-Barbara Vogel, who has also recorded for Avie some of Gál's chamber violin works. By way of tribute to Gál's adopted home city, the Edinburgh Quartet recorded his complete String Quartets on two discs for Meridian. All critical reports are once again glowing, as they are with regard to Gál's piano music, also reasonably well documented: from Leon McCawley's three-hours-plus traversal of the complete solo works, again on Avie, and a nearly-complete recording by Martin Jones on Nimbus; not to forget Goldstone and Clemmow's complete piano duos, originally on Olympia. There are many more recordings - a full discography, and much excellent information besides, is available on the website of the Hans Gál Society.
As for Elgar, Jacqueline du Pré's first recording of the Concerto with Barbirolli gives the impression of having been reissued every year since her premature death! That turns out to be almost an understatement, in fact: so far this year EMI Classics have reissued du Pré's Elgar an incredible four times in different boxed sets (9559052, 3273592, 0919752, 0919342). Thus if the work is sometimes thought of as a 'warhorse', record labels must shoulder much of the responsibility. Besides du Pré, all the following releases or reissues have appeared either in 2011 or the first half of 2012: Paul Watkins on Chandos (CHAN 10709), Mischa Maisky on DG (4783619), Jian Wang on ABC Classics (ABC 4764297), Anthony Pini on Australian Eloquence (4804249), Alisa Weilerstein on EuroArts (2058064), Mstislav Rostropovich on BBC Legends (BBCL 50052), Beatrice Harrison on Music & Arts (MACD 1257) and on EMI Classics (0956942) and Pablo Casals on Regis (RRC 5010). Not forgetting yet another du Pré last year on EMI (0954442)!
In spite of all the competition there, Meneses' account of Elgar bears up well. From the opening bars he makes it clear that this is going to be a thoughtful, musicianly interpretation. It avoids surrendering to any temptation towards melodrama or showmanship as heard in one or two of the above recordings and elsewhere. Meneses plays a Gagliano cello from around 1730, intriguingly adding an almost Baroque colour to Elgar and Gál, especially striking in the cadenzas.
In the notes Meneses describes the Gál Concerto as "a jewel of a concerto that should be part of the normal repertoire of all cellists in the world". It does not have the obvious immediacy of Elgar's work, at least not in the first movement. It is undeniably 'atavistic', revealing a nostalgia at times for Dvorák or Saint-Saëns, let alone Elgar. It is also masterfully orchestrated, structured and paced, unfailingly mellifluous, ideationally and dynamically varied, and surely as rewarding a work for the soloist as it is for the audience. Meneses hopes others will take up its cause; with this as reference recording, they can hardly go wrong.
The English-French-German booklet features detailed notes on the works by conductor Kenneth Woods, who recorded Gál's Third Symphony with the Orchestra of the Swan for Avie (see link above). There is also a short but interesting conversation between Meneses and Eva Fox-Gál, daughter of the composer, and ever-helpful in the promotion of her father's legacy.
Audio quality is good without being spectacular. Both works have been recorded at low volumes, which may need some adjustment. Depth feels slightly circumscribed by imperfect definition in the orchestral strings in particular. In all likelihood this is not a major consideration, however. Claudio Cruz's attention to detail and the excellent Northern Sinfonia's lack of pomp make up for it, on the whole.
-- Byzantion, MusicWeb International
Receiving two very fine recordings of my favorite cello concerto, the Elgar, two issues in a row (see Fanfare 36:1 for review of Paul Watkins’s Chandos release) is enough treat in itself. But the real news here is the first-ever recording of Hans Gál’s Cello Concerto, composed in 1944 under very trying circumstances.
It’s not surprising, I suppose, that the booklet cover that displays through the jewel case’s front window lists the Elgar first, no doubt a lure based on name recognition. But it’s the Gál that comes first on the disc and is so confirmed by the booklet’s backplate that displays through the rear window.
Hans Gál (1890–1987) lived a long life but one filled with tragedy for a good part of it. An Austrian Jew, he was caught up in the Nazi vise, believing he’d be safe back in Austria after being dismissed from his post as director of the Mainz Conservatory in Germany. But the Anschluss soon brought Hitler’s storm troopers to Austria to round up and deport the Jews there as well. Gál and his immediate family were able to escape to the U.K. in 1938 before they were conveyed to a concentration camp, but trouble followed them across the Channel.
At first, Gál’s prospects brightened. Francis Donald Tovey invited him to Edinburgh to work as an archivist cataloging the Reid Music Library. But when Tovey was suddenly incapacitated by a stroke, Gál returned to London just in time for the outbreak of the war. Citing national security concerns, the Brits began rounding up German and Austrian nationals and sequestering them in detention camps. Gál was caught up in the sweeps and found himself interned in a camp on the Isle of Man, perversely incarcerated side by side with those from whom he’d fled. Upon his release four months later, he returned to Edinburgh. But by now, Hitler’s death camps, mostly in Poland, were working overtime, and members of Gál’s extended family who were still in Germany were at grave risk.
Gál’s mother, thankfully for her, died on her own in 1942, but in Weimar his sister and an aunt took their own lives to avoid deportation to Auschwitz, and that same year, Gál’s youngest son, Peter, who was physically out of harm’s way with the family in Edinburgh, committed suicide at the age of 18. Gál remained in Edinburgh where he was appointed lecturer at the city’s university, founded the Edinburgh Festival, and was eventually awarded the Order of the British Empire. He was also honored by the nations that would almost certainly have killed him had he remained. His cantata De Profundis was premiered in Wiesbaden, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Mainz and the Literis et Artibus medal by Austria.
Gál’s Cello Concerto is a work purely of the heart and soul, for no commission or even remote prospect of performance prompted it. Six years would pass before the work was first heard at a concert by the Göteborg Orchestra in 1950 with cellist Guido Vecchi playing the solo part.
Despite its 1944 date of composition, the concerto is as romantic a score as anyone could have made to order. Considering the circumstances under which it was written, it’s not as dark a work as Elgar’s World War I Cello Concerto. There are passages, however, of lament and exquisite, soaring lyrical beauty, and from time to time an exotic Middle Eastern element in the music comes to the surface that distantly echoes Bloch’s Schelomo and Voice in the Wilderness . The solo part in Gál’s concerto requires a good deal of virtuosic skill, but the work is not what you would call a virtuoso showpiece. For much of the score’s first two movements, the cello plays an almost obbligato role, dialoging with instruments in the orchestra in a pretty much equal engagement. It’s not until the concluding movement, in which the cello has an extended and technically challenging cadenza, that the writing highlights the soloist in a more traditional virtuoso concerto role.
This is a most magnificent addition to the cello repertoire, a work that, in my opinion, deserves to take its place beside the Schumann, Dvorák, and Elgar concertos as one of the cello’s great repertoire works. Antonio Meneses, unquestionably one of the instrument’s great players on the world stage, performs Gál’s concerto with breathtaking sweep.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto is well known and has been covered extensively in these pages. Therefore, I will restrict myself to telling you that Meneses’s deeply penetrating, intensely passionate, throbbing reading, supported by some of the most sympathetic orchestral playing from Claudio Cruz and the Northern Sinfonia I’ve heard in this score, goes straight to my 2012 Want List without passing GO.
This is an absolutely must-have disc, assuredly for the Gál, but also for one of the most beautiful performances of the Elgar you may ever hear.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Cello, Op. 67 by Hans Gál
Antonio Meneses (Cello)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1944; England
Concerto for Cello in E minor, Op. 85 by Sir Edward Elgar
Antonio Meneses (Cello)
Written: 1919; England
Featured Sound Samples
Cello Concerto (Gál): II. Andante
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