Gal: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Symphony No. 1. Kenneth Woods, Orchestra of the Swan. Avie AV2233.

With this disc Maestro Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan conclude their survey of the four symphonies by Viennese teacher, pianist, and composer Hans Gal (1890-1987). What has been a little unclear is why Avie coupled each of the Gal symphonies with one by German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). The connections continue to be rather nebulous to me, although a booklet note explains that it has something to do with people often misunderstanding both Gal and Schumann and with both of their "first" symphonies not actually being the composers' first symphonic works. And, of course, both composers were born in the same century and wrote four symphonies. OK. The main thing is that Woods and his players again do up the symphonies nicely, which is all most of us really care about.

Although much of what preoccupied Gal in his lifetime was opera, he produced his Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 30 in 1927, his publisher suggesting to him that it was really a sinfonietta and he should title it so. Gal resisted and submitted the work to a music competition, winning second prize. Thereafter, it enjoyed a short-lived fame but since 1933 has received only three public performances.

Gal's First Symphony is relatively brief, about thirty minutes, and more outgoing than the other symphonies I've heard from him. Maestro Woods takes advantage of these characteristics to provide a lively and colorful rendering of things. The symphony is clearly Romantic in nature yet with strong hints of the coming modernism of the twentieth century. Woods emphasizes the melodic lines, keeps the Burleske playful, draws out a lovely Elegie, and ends with a rousing account of the Rondo finale. Although I had never heard the work before now, I would find it hard to imagine anyone handling it any better than Woods, nor any orchestra playing it with more accuracy and enthusiasm.

Schumann wrote his Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Op. 38 "Spring" in 1841, soon after he married Clara Wieck. Clara claimed her husband called it the "Spring Symphony" because of the "Spring" poems of Adolph Boettger; Robert claimed he so named it because of his "spring of love." Obviously, the symphony is therefore romantic in every sense. He tinkered with it until its publication in final form in 1853, and listeners have loved it ever since.

Regarding the Schumann piece, we are in another symphonic world altogether. It really seems a little unfair to Gal to have the two works side by side. Not that the Gal symphony fares all that poorly by itself; its pastoral effects, especially, are quite a charming reflection of early twentieth-century music. But Schumann wrote a masterpiece for the ages, which Woods offers up in a spirited if rather quickly paced interpretation. The reading loses a little something in the way of Schumann's singing melodies and poetic grace, replaced by a more energetic swagger; less of a dance than a sprint. The trade-off isn't all that bad, mind you, just different. Nevertheless, Woods's rendition doesn't displace my favorite recordings of Schumann's First Symphony from Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Roy Goodman (RCA), and others, which seem to me to combine the best of both vitality and lyricism in their versions.

Simon Fox-Gal (the grandson of composer Hans Gal) produced, engineered, and edited the recording, made at Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon in December 2013. The sound he obtained shows good depth and clarity. The orchestra appears to be somewhat small, about thirty or so players if we can believe the photograph of them in the accompanying booklet, and as a small ensemble they sound a bit more transparent than a full orchestra might sound. The overall sonic presentation seems a tad forward to me, while revealing good detail. It's also a touch strident in the upper frequencies during loudest passages, but not enough to concern most listeners. With its wide stereo presentation, fairly good dynamics, transient response, and impact, the audio comes off pretty well.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa