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.

JJP

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


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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa