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Positive Feedback ISSUE 70
november/december 2013


Hans Gál and Robert Schumann
by Stephen Francis Vasta


GÁL: Symphony No. 2 in F, Op. 53. SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120. Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods. Avie AV 2232. TT: 73.11

Avie's Gál-and-Schumann series continues with another successful release.

Hans Gál achieved some prominence as a composer and teacher in the German-speaking countries before Hitler's ascent to power. A series of professional setbacks and personal tragedies ensued, which did not end with his family's flight to the U.K. Despite the unfortunate personal and political circumstances of its composer's life, however, this symphony is not music of tragedy or despair, spanning, rather, a wide-ranging, ambivalent emotional affect.

The first movement serves as an introduction for the whole work, turning on a dime from bleak, Expressionist wanderings to open-throated, even affirmative lyricism, all cast in clean textures that allow the listener better to savor Gál's variegated orchestral palette. The second movement, effectively a scherzo, mostly chugs along cheerfully despite ominous tutti punctuations, with harmonic quirks that suggest Shostakovich.

The broad Adagio—which the composer originally authorized for separate performance—begins as an Elgarian elegy in vibrant, string-drenched sonorities. A plaintive oboe introduces a more agitated passage, moving through a virile climax to grim brass chords under tremolos. Eventually, the music works its way back to the peaceful opening mood for a serene close. The finale's main theme is agitated and severe, set off by a fluttering but contented second group introduced by solo flute and oboe.

The conductor, Kenneth Woods, proves a persuasive advocate for the score, balancing an ear for detail with a sense of the music's long line; his performance is appropriately varied in mood, color, and texture. If the picture in the booklet is any indication, the Orchestra of the Swan is not overly large, but they produce polished, full-bodied sounds and phrase expressively.

The pairing of Gál with Schumann might seem odd, but, in fact, the two scores complement each other—a salutary reminder that Gál's symphony, for all its comparative "modernity," belongs to the same symphonic tradition as Schumann's. Woods's performance, in which the orchestra sounds "big" and imposing, is again persuasive, despite a few tempo quirks. The drastic acceleration in the final few bars of the slow introduction hurtles rather unceremoniously into the body of the first movement, which in turn is exciting, although the tutti punctuations are almost too forceful.

The two middle movements are excellent: The Romanza is poised, and when its second theme returns in the Scherzo, the conductor subtly points up its ambiguous duple-or-triple scansion. In the Finale, each appearance of the second theme presses forward, requiring Woods to slow down at the start of the development in order to regain the initial tempo. Still, the presentation is effectively taut and dramatic.

I realize that most collectors probably already have Schumann's symphonies—perhaps in the Solti/Vienna (Decca) or Kubelik/Berlin (DG) versions, which still stand well some forty years later—and may not need more. Still, for new CD buyers—and there are such, despite all the noise about downloading—this issue suggests that the Avie series might be an excellent way to acquire them. And everybody should get to know the Gál symphony.

Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.