Hans Gál’s Viola Music

TOCC0535 - cover

GÁL: Suite Concertante for Viola & Orchestra.4 Divertimento for Violin & Viola.1 Sonata for Viola & Piano.2 Trio for Oboe, Violin & Viola1,3 / Hanna Pakkala, vla; 1Reijo Tunkkari, vln; 2Irina Zahharenkova, pno; 3Takuya Takashima, ob; 4Ostrobothnian Chamber Orch., Sakari Oramo, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0535

Hans Gál (1890-1987) wrote extensively for the viola, thus this is Vol. 1 in a projected series of albums dedicated to his scores for that instrument. Three of the works here date from the 1940s whereas the Divertimento dates from 1969.

Viennese-born, Gál held a position as head of the Musikhochschule in Mainz but was immediately dismissed from his post when the Nazis assumed power in 1933. He returned to his native country but again had to leave in March 1938 after the Nazis invaded Austria. Living in England, he had a hard time finding work despite the enthusiastic support of Sir Donald Tovey, largely because it was stamped in refugees’ passports that they were forbidden to do either paid or unpaid work in the U.K. He finally landed a post teaching at the University of Edinburgh in 1945, from which point on he was a highly respected teacher and author. But Gál, by his own admission, was never one to promote his own cause. A quiet, almost shy man, Gál admitted that he was “much too passive to do anything.”

Gál’s music was primarily late-Romantic in style but informed by the harmonic daring of composers of the 1920s. His Suite Concertante opens with a long viola solo, very melodic and written in long lines, after which the oboe, clarinet and French horn interject a few notes as the music continues, underscored by pizzicato celli and basses. At 2:30 in the first movement there is also a lovely duet for viola and violin. Generally speaking, Gál’s music was similar to that of Alexandre Tansman. The second movement, “Furioso,” is highly rhythmic in an almost neo-classic style, but again with lyrical melodic lines for the solo viola. In the third movement, “Con grazia,” Gál shows a penchant for very clever and subtle key changes within a phrase.

The 1969 Divertimento shows a slightly more modern Gál, writing an elaborate string duet with some influences of post-World War II music but still essentially lyrical. The viola-piano sonata from 1942 is very Straussian in style; the second movement is a waltz, albeit one with slightly quirky harmonic shifts within each bar.

I liked the trio for oboe, violin and viola for its pastoral sound. Gál interweaves the instruments skillfully, but the music itself is not particularly adventurous.

Hans Gál is a perfect example of why I bristle when performers include people like him in their surveys of “Entrarte Musik.” He was a fine, decent, solid composer of pleasant music that certainly has its place now and then in the repertoire, but there’s nothing particularly special, unique or personal about it. For all its fine craft, it is relatively “faceless.” It’s certainly not poorly written, but it’s so formulaic that it could have been written by anybody who was trained during his time. Had Gál been purely Aryan, Hitler would probably have put him on a pedestal and held him up as an example of what good music sounded like compared to that degenerate Hindemith, who was pure Aryan (but who left Germany anyway because he hated the Nazis). Still, it’s worth hearing at least once because it shows how you can write Strauss-like melodic lines with constantly shifting harmonies in a more modern style. Gál was undoubtedly an excellent composition teacher; he knew what he was doing; but a genius he wasn’t.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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