Gal: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22. Sarah Beth Briggs, piano; Kenneth Woods, Royal Northern Sinfonia. Avie AV2358.

The Austrian-British composer, teacher, and author Hans Gal (1890-1987) might have fallen into obscurity by now if it hadn't been for companies like Avie Records and conductors like Kenneth Woods and Thomas Zehetmair, who have relatively recently begun to champion the neglected composer with a series of new recordings. In the present album, Maestro Woods, pianist Sarah Beth Briggs, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia perform the world premiere recording of Gal's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 57, coupled with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K.482. The results are not only splendid, they fill a much-needed gap in the Gal discography.

Gal wrote his piano concerto in 1948, well into the modern era of classical music. Yet with its lush melodies the score has its feet set firmly in the Romantic period, leading many critics of the time to view Gal as rather old-fashioned. Today's audience may be ready for a return to the more tuneful music of yesteryear, and, thus, we may be hearing more from composers who value entertaining but creative harmonies over experimental dissonance. Who knows? I generalize. What we have in Gal's work is highly accessible and easy to like. That's my main point, no matter what one's opinion of Romantic vs. modern classical music.

Sarah Beth Briggs
Of less question are the talent, discipline, energy, and enthusiasm of the music makers. Ms. Briggs's pianism is both dexterous and impish, capturing the airy, evocative atmosphere of Gal's music as well as its often humorous interludes. The central Adagio is especially wistful and sweet. Moreover, Maestro Woods appears every bit the old hand at Gal's scores, offering a solid, sympathetic accompaniment that complements but never overshadows Ms. Briggs's playing. Together, they make a good case for modern listeners appreciating Gal's ideas more than ever.

Attending the Gal piece we get Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22, which may seem an odd coupling until you realize that several previous Gal albums also combined his music with that of past masters. Here, the booklet note tries to explain the relationship between Gal's music and Mozart's, but I didn't find the argument entirely convincing. I would have liked hearing Gal's piano concertina, instead.

In any case, Ms. Briggs directs the Mozart from the keyboard, and the performance sounds happy, sprightly, and dignified at the same time. When after a lengthy introduction the piano enters, it comes as no surprise that it matches the orchestra's ardor, although to a somewhat more-subdued degree. Nevertheless, it's one of the better readings of this work you'll find, filled with subtlety, grace, wit, elegance, and grandeur. Even if I would have preferred a bit more spirited abandon in the delicious closing Allegro, performed a bit low-key, it still sounds radiant.

Simon Fox-Gal, the grandson of Hans Gal, recorded, produced, engineered, and edited the present album, making it in Hall One, Sage Gateshead, England in January 2016. The piano is a little close for my liking, stretching too far from left to right across the stage. Otherwise, the sonics sound balanced, clear, well focused, and mildly resonant. There is also a fine sense of front-to-back depth to the orchestra, which together with a wide dynamic range and strong impact provides a realistic presentation.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa