Three Sketches, Op.7
Sonatina in C, Op.58/1
Sonatina in A minor, Op.58/2
Three Small Pieces, Op.64
Three Preludes, Op.65
24 Preludes, Op.83
24 Fugues, Op.108
Leon McCawley (piano)
Recorded 10-13 November 2004 & 26-28 March 2005 at Potton Hall, Suffolk
CD No: AVIE RECORDS AV 2064 (3 CDs) Duration: 3 hours 9 minutes Reviewed: October 2005
Hans Gál: The Complete Works for Solo Piano
Reviewed by William Yeoman
Among the many gifts possessed by JS Bach was an ability to immediately recognise the developmental potential of any given musical phrase. Given the breadth and beauty of the harmonic and melodic invention exhibited by the works on these discs, it’s clear that Hans Gál (1890-1987) must also have had a knack for fully ‘educating’ a musical idea and developing it to its fullest potential – though tempered by an intensely self-critical awareness (he destroyed much of his early music and said that his 24 Preludes are “...as concise as possible in order to shape a thought with precision”).
This 3-CD set brings together all of Gál’s works for solo piano. The first disc is devoted to miscellaneous pieces, from the Three Sketches of 1910 through to the Sonatinas of 1951; the second disc contains the 24 Preludes of 1960; the third the 24 Fugues of 1980.
Listening to this music, it’s possible to deduce flavours stemming from an artistic terroir that included an early introduction to opera by Gál’s father; two teachers of genius in the forms of Richard Robert (who, unlike his famous contemporaries in Vienna, Emil von Sauer and Theodor Leschetizky, was interested in developing the broader musicality of the piano-student through score-reading and transposition) and Eusebius Mandyczewski (an intimate of Brahms and with whom Gál collaborated on a complete Brahms edition in the mid-1920s); an early establishment of a style that combined unashamed melodic attractiveness with extreme intellectual rigour; and an enormous wealth of experience in every sphere of music: performance, composition, musicology and pedagogy. Even the trauma of having to emigrate to the UK (to reside in Edinburgh) after being forced first from Germany, where Gál was director of the Mainz Conservatoire, and then Vienna by the Nazis must have further intensified Austria-born Gál’s devotion to stable and largely unambiguous tonal structures.
And yes: the spirits of Brahms, Schubert and Bach do indeed seem to be presiding over Gál’s music, but spirit is the operative word. These works are no mere pastiches or neo-classical confections, but works where lessons have been learned, the principles extracted and then developed in an entirely original way; jazz and popular Viennese music are also present, although again these influences are thoroughly integrated into a unique personal language.
The tremendous, final set of Fugues in particular, written by Gál as a ninetieth-birthday present to himself, achieve great clarity despite the dense textures through the use of highly melodic and attractive musical subjects.
Leon McCawley’s playing is beyond criticism, avoiding an excess of ‘interpretation’ and focussing on revealing the structure of the music with absolute clarity and concentration. One is tempted to say he’s an ideal advocate, but really this music needs no advocacy: it speaks for itself, and needs merely to be revealed with sympathy. Which is exactly what we get here. The three CDs sell for the price of two. A Hans Gál Society is announced, too.