GÁL: Symphony No. 4 "Sinfonia concertante," op. 105 (1973). SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 2 in C, op. 61 (1846).
David Le Page (violin); Christopher Allan (cello); Diane Clark (flute); Sally Harrop (clarinet); Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods.
AVIE AV2231 TT: 73:09.
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Fine Gál, indifferent Schumann. Standard musical histories tend to cut off Nineteenth-Century Romanticism with the death of Mahler, but in fact Romantic composers continued writing. Richard Strauss, after all, died in 1949, just two years before Schoenberg. Gál died in 1980, although he differs from the other two, since he was born in 1890, more or less part of the second generation of early Modernists. I haven't come across too many composers who consciously rejected the music of their time and had enough to say of interest. After all, the odds run pretty much against you that you will produce a Don Quixote: The Quickening or Son of Das Lied von der Erde or a Brahms Fifth. George Bernard Shaw used to say (talking of Haydn and Mozart) that in art, it doesn't matter who comes before you, but who comes after. That is, after Mozart, nobody did the Classical style anywhere nearly as well, not even, in Haydn's estimation, Haydn. Composers had to find something else interesting to do.

Never say never. Strauss continued to produce masterpieces until his death. Thanks to recordings, we can get acquainted with all sorts of work critics, programmers, and scholars have ignored. Gál, I think, a happy exception, a real discovery. I don't consider him a composer "as good as Mahler and Strauss," but he doesn't have to be. He's wonderful in his own way. I keep bringing up Mahler, Strauss, and Brahms, because Gál's music sounds like to me like an amalgam of those three: Brahmsian, even Schubertian, lyricism and architectural grip, Straussian harmonies, and Mahlerian transparency of counterpoint and orchestration.

Although some reviewers have complained about the Fourth as a non-symphony symphony -- by which they seem to mean it ain't Bruckner -- I like it the best of the four. It reminds me somewhat of Mahler's intimate moments or of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 1. That intimacy itself endears the music to me. Gál writes for solo violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and small orchestra. There's no apparent striving for extra-musical profundity, no inflation of effect. This music celebrates humans not as young titans, but for their humanity. I once wrote that angels, if they exist, must envy us, foolish as we are. We endure indifferent and overbearing forces in a limited span. We choose (or not) to be kind, and many try to act well. Our mortality should make us humble and willing to give others the break we wish we had. Of course, these principles don't always work out, but they remain human ideals.

Gál's music evokes the utopian pastoral, without the brainlessness. I've deliberately avoided calling it "modest," because of its high finish. It consists of four movements: "Improvvisazione: Molto moderato -- Allegro moderato"; "Scherzo leggiero: Vivace ma non presto"; "Duetto: Adagio"; "Buffoneria: Allegro con spirito."

" Improvvisazione" introduces the soloists, whose music takes on an ad lib air. It also introduces a motto theme, which becomes a march in the Allegro section. The march is less military and more like a resolute "good stretch of the legs" through the countryside, with a few breaks to enjoy the scenery. The language, as I've said, falls somewhere between Mahler and Strauss. The scherzo flits lightly, with good humor, as opposed to grotesquerie, sarcasm, or crude jokes. The motto appears, varied, in the trio. Kenneth Woods's liner notes assert that Gál wanted to evoke the commedia dell'arte figures of Harlequin and Columbine. This movement alone would make, I think, a lovely ballet, and I can't think of too many good Germanic ones. I'd even call the movement "poetic," if that word didn't apply equally to the other ones as well.

The adagio concentrates on the violin and cello soloists to balance out the clarinet and flute, who have had the lion's share of opportunity in the previous movements. The character of the movement resembles more a Brahms allegretto than a sehnsuchtsvoll prayer or lament. Instead, it celebrates the beauty of song. "Buffoneria" assumes a bit of rustic humor, although free from the vulgarity the word "buffoonery" suggests. Ordinarily, by the way, I actually enjoy honest vulgarity. Its opposite too often seems to be bloodless, smug gentility, rather than anything positive. Here, however, Gál gives you something that should bring a smile to your puss.

I stress, however, that the best part of this symphony is actually listening to it, of making contact with such a regal, Apollonian mind.

Schumann wrote the best Mendelssohn symphonies. I adore all four but find myself listening to the Second the most, probably because I have more good performances of that one. Dohnányi leads the Cleveland Orchestra in my favorite account (London/Decca Double Decker 452214; it contains all the symphonies). Kenneth Woods's observations on the work made me excited to hear his account, but he disappointed me. It's not terrible, but it's also, in the playing, not distinctive. In four movements, it begins with a fanfare-like motto, which shows up occasionally throughout the symphony as a unifying reminder, rather than as a structural principle. The second-movement scherzo is distinguished by having two trios, in a Florestan-Eusebius split. Schumann invented these characters in his criticism as alter egos representing two opposing parts of his psyche: the passionate, energetic part (Florestan) and the dreamy, poetic part (Eusebius).

While composing the symphony (most of it during serious illness, incidentally), Schumann began to study Bach's Musical Offering. This comes out in little ways throughout the symphony, but especially in the melancholy slow movement, whose main theme comes from the Musical Offering's trio sonata. Kenneth Woods describes it beautifully:

Schumann sets the theme as a Romantic song without words: Bach in the style of Schumann. In the dark heart of the movement lies a bleak fugal episode: Schumann in the style of Bach.

The combining of the fugal subject with the main theme provides the movement's subtle highlight. The finale is a manic march.

You wouldn't buy this disc for the Schumann, although the performance isn't bad. Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan (a chamber orchestra based in Stratford-on-Avon) do well enough in the Gál to give you an idea of its stature. For a first recording, it's good enough. Should Gál ever catch on, you can easily imagine the Vienna Philharmonic or the Berlin or any number of orchestras bettering this. The sound is quite good. The engineers have also gotten the tricky balances of Gál's symphony.

S.G.S. (December 2012)