Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 7 December 2012

Gál and Krása String Trios: Ensemble Epomeo

Hans Gál: Serenade in D, Op.41. Trio in F Sharp Minor, Op.104. Hans Krása: Tanec, Passacaglia and Fuga
Ensemble Epomeo.
Avie AV2259 [67:08]
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Following his sterling work championing the orchestral music of Hans Gál, Kenneth Woods now turns his attention to the composer’s chamber music. Woods here plays cello in Ensemble Epomeo, a trio that also includes violinist Caroline Chin and violist David Yang. Given the high quality of the Gál symphonies that Woods has previously presented, it comes as little surprise that the music here is very fine indeed. Gál upholds all of the time-honoured virtues of the Austro-Germanic tradition, one of which is to treat chamber music as the most hallowed of musical genres, demanding the highest level of craftsmanship and the most personal and confessional modes of expression. The contrapuntal ingenuity that we hear in Gál’s symphonies is much in evidence in his string trio music, yet there is never any danger of dry academicism, nor of fashionable neo-classical formality.
The Serenade in D is a substantial work, coming in at over 25 minutes, and is rigorously structured along symphonic lines. But the title has not been selected out of modesty, rather it reflects the lightness and grace that characterises the music. Here we find Gál at his most playful, conjuring a range of airy and open textures, the better to display the inner workings of his counterpoint. This is music composed with an assured and confident technique but that never takes itself too seriously. Brahms may be the model for the technical details of this music, but in its playfulness and grace it has a direct line to the serenades of Mozart.
The Trio in F Sharp Minor is a much later work, written in 1971 and separated from the 1932 Serenade by almost 40 years, a world war and a displacement to the UK. It opens in a completely different aesthetic, a less focussed and more impressionistic soundworld. Curiously, Gál is not able to maintain this undisciplined approach for long, and after a few minutes he returns to the clear, well-structured and contrapuntal textures in which he is clearly most comfortable. The piece was originally written for the London Viola d’Amore Society, with that instrument taking the middle part. As a result, the viola has plenty to do. In fact, Gál always treats his three instruments as equal players anyway, so the difference is minimal.
Music by the Theresienstadt composers comes with all sorts of historical and political baggage, and while the musical qualities of Ullmann, Krása, Klein and their colleagues are now widely appreciated, their works are usually presented together and in isolation from anything else. This approach is defensible in some musical respects, particularly through the fact that each of the composers who worked at Theresienstadt was transformed by the experience, leading them to write music they would never have contemplated on the outside. But the ghetto approach to the presentation of these works perpetuates the injustice that created it. With that in mind, it is all the more laudable that two Theresienstadt works by Hans Krása are programmed here with the Gál. The camp makes its presence felt in the terseness of Krása’s musical prose; his message is concentrated because his days are numbered. Even so, there are interesting stylistic links between the two composers. The Brahms in Krása’s music is mediated by Schoenberg, whereas Gál takes his direct. Dance forms underpin the more energetic passages in both composers’ works, but in both cases the links with any actual folk tradition are tenuous.
Ensemble Epomeo does both composers a great service with their precise, lively and stylistically astute performances. The clarity in all the textures allows both men’s contrapuntal innovations to shine through. There is atmosphere here too (helped by the warm recorded sound) and the long movements of both Gál works are fabulously involving, with the ensemble leading the ear through the composers various arguments and corollaries.
Nobody is suggesting that any of this music is being rediscovered or saved from terminal neglect. In fact, both composers are well represented on disc, at least in terms of the number of commercial recordings each has to his name. But the quality of these performances may help to initiate a new era in the reception of their works, and especially of Gál’s. His Serenade definitely deserves a central place in the recital repertoire, even if it requires performances of this high standard to make its many qualities fully apparent.

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