Hans Gál Mini Festival (Concert 1) Review

Sunday 13th March 2016

From left to right: Mark Bailey (cello), Sarah Beth Briggs (piano), Leon McCawley (piano), Eva Fox-Gál, Lord Provost George Adam, Judy Brown (mezzo-sopranao) and Fraser Kelman (oboe).

Sunday afternoon’s performance was the first of two concerts constituting a Mini Festival, Celebrating the Life and Music of Hans Gál. These concerts also marked the end and indeed the culmination of the current season of events promoted by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts.

Hans Gál was born in what is now a suburb of Vienna in 1890. To begin with, his musical life was very successful. In 1915 he won the Austrian State Prize for composition and in 1929 was appointed Director of the Conservatoire in Mainz. Because he was of Jewish descent, he lost this post and with the advent of the Anschluss in 1938 had to flee the Reich seeking refuge in Britain. Sadly, rather than being welcomed, he suffered a period of internment as an “enemy alien” but Sir Donald Tovey, Professor of Music, brought him to Edinburgh where he became a lecturer in Music at the University of Edinburgh. He was a much loved teacher, performer and musical personality and was a founder member of the Edinburgh Festival. Hans Gál continued composing and more than half of his output of over 140 published works were composed in Britain. Why is he not better known today? Well, his work is founded in tonality at a time when that went out of fashion and the later works of Schoenberg, Webern and the theories of Theodor W. Adorno were all the rage with critics, musicologists and concert promoters even if not with audiences.

In her introduction to Sunday’s concert, Joan MacDonald who is Honorary Secretary of Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts told us how over two years ago she came across the piano music of Hans Gál and was entranced. The Mini Festival which came to fruition on Sunday was her idea and in Queen’s Cross on Sunday were Hans Gál’s daughter and granddaughter. The audience also included members from France, the USA and from all over Scotland. They had all come to join in the celebration of this very special event. Councillor George Adam, the Lord Provost of Aberdeen was also a welcome member of Sunday’s audience.

The concert began with music for piano, the Sonatina No. 1 in C op. 58 (1951) played with astonishing clarity and refinement by piano virtuoso Leon McCawley. He has recorded the complete piano works of Hans Gál. Most, if not all of today’s music was receiving its Aberdeen première and was therefore new to most of the audience though not of course to members of the Hans Gál Society.

To begin with, it was difficult to place this music in historical context but that it was immediately attractive, finely crafted and with a unique imaginative quality was instantly obvious. Leon McCawley gave us a wonderfully clear account of the opening movement. It was indeed cantabile as the composer’s instruction demanded. The second movement was lively and incisive with light fingered virtuosity from the pianist. This movement was witty too, I thought. The finale was full of thematic contrast showing the sheer fertility of Hans Gál musical imagination.

Leon McCawley is a very talented pianist but so was Sarah Beth Briggs. She was much more than just an accompanist for various other musicians, her piano playing and indeed Hans Gál’s writing for piano was often quite spectacular in itself. In the Sonata for Oboe and Piano op. 85 she was teamed by a supremely talented oboist Fraser Kelman. I deliberately avoid saying that she accompanied Fraser Kelman because the piano part was of equal artistic impact. The two instruments shared the limelight magnificently. There was fantastic free flowing playing from both instruments. The rhythm and the melodic lines of the opening movement did suggest the music of Hindemith to me. The following Pavane was elegant and imaginative with an entrancing pastoral aura about it. That feeling spilled over into the finale which was lively and playful and full of pep from both performers at the end.

Like many other composers starting with Bach, Hans Gál has written 24 preludes      op. 83 and 24 Fugues op. 108. We were to hear two of each. The Prelude in g minor op. 83 no. 6 had a marvellous rhythmic flow. I was reminded just for a second of the Berceuse from Fauré’s Dolly Suite although the music itself was quite unique. The Fugue in c minor op. 108 was worthy for both theme and structure. The Prelude in D major op. 83 no. 19 was also reminiscent of Fauré while the Fugue in A major op. 108 no. 19 could be admired for its structural strength.

After the interval we were introduced to a completely different side of Hans Gál’s music – his Five Songs for middle voice and piano op. 33 in which Sara Beth Briggs was teamed with mezzo soprano Judy Brown. In these songs the piano often set the background scene most colourfully as in The Meadow Brook and Evening on the River for instance. Judy Brown’s singing was a masterclass in power and clarity. Hans Gál’s word setting followed proudly on from Schumann, Schubert and especially in The Meadow Brook, from Mahler.

Leon McCawley’s final set was Three Preludes for piano op. 65 (1944). The opening Prelude marked Vivacissimo was all that and then some. It was busy music with an attractive slower tune emerging form the frenetic background. The middle movement, Lento e Tranquillo had a transparent beauty and was played with delicious fluency. The Presto finale was bright and wonderfully fresh sounding.

The final piece in the concert also set the seal on Hans Gál’s amazing variety of chamber music. This was the Suite for Cello and piano op.6 in which Sarah Beth Briggs was joined by cello virtuoso Mark Bailey who of course is cellist with the Edinburgh Quartet. The opening movement, Präludium, was seductively tuneful with marvellously outgoing playing from Mark Bailey. The second movement entitled Burleske was busy and great fun, played with fierce intensity by both piano and cello. The piano dominated the third movement with an extensive introduction but Mark Bailey was very much “in the zone” with his playing. The Finale marked Capriccioso showed once again Hans Gál’s fertile imagination with its sheer variety and richness of ideas.

One of the most famous remarks made by Gustav Mahler was, “My time will come”. From the early sixties when it was difficult to get recordings of some of his symphonies to the end of the 20th Century when there were hundreds available that remark certainly came true. Could we say that thanks to Joan MacDonald and Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts, in Aberdeen at any rate, Hans Gál’s time has finally come?