In every way a splendid release.
There was little musical similarity between Hans Gál and Ernst Krenek but both were born in Vienna, sons of the greater Austro-Hungarian Empire, barely ten years apart. Both reached positions of some eminence or notoriety in Germany and both fled the Nazis in 1938. The music in this disc, all composed in the 1940s, reflects their early accommodation with their new, adopted homelands; America in Krenek’s case, Scotland in Gál’s. The very recent publication of Gál’s internment diaries adds another layer of significance to his portion of the programme (‘A Summer Behind Barbed Wire; A Diary of Summer 1940’; Toccata Press).
Gál’s Viola Sonata, Op.101 was composed in 1942, and is a flowing, unhurried example of his art. Its generous lyricism offers plenty of opportunities to both players, not least when the piano either dovetails with the viola or comments reflectively upon its lines. There’s a waltzing minuet with a richly serious B section, and a finale with a not-so-serious march theme, a movement that again allows one to appreciate his gift for warm lyric invention, a gift that allies him rather more with a predecessor such as Mendelssohn than the Schumannesque composer he’s often said to be. The Impromptu was written for his son, Peter, who was learning the viola; it sits very well for the instrument and this song-without-words is played with real affection by Roger Benedict. The Viola Suite, Op.102a reprises those qualities of sometimes jokey characterisation encountered in the Sonata – the warm character moods, the cod-dramatic march, and adds the witty badinage of the burlesque finale.
Krenek is represented by two sonatas. The Viola sonata, Op.117 – both composers had also built up a prolific portfolio of works even by the 1940s – was written in 1948, couched in an accessible twelve-tone technique, its three movements compactly forming a fine arch. Krenek makes much of the abruptness of contrasts in this work framing the fast central movement with two outer, slower ones. The 1942 Sonata for solo viola is a more unsettled, occasionally unsettling work. Its withdrawn qualities embrace a frank melancholy that – if biography is allowed – may be a direct reflection of his mental state at the time. Certainly, despite the con vigore indication, the culmination of the sonata, a striking Chaconne, evinces more sparse and unsettled feelings than anything remotely consoling.
Benedict and Timothy Young measure the twin expressive poles of the music of these very different composers perfectly and the recording quality is ideal. There are fine trilingual booklet notes from the violist. There’s also the bonus of an introduction by Barry Humphries whose interest in Weimar art is well known, though I didn’t know it extended to music of the period. But he’d scoured Melbourne music shops for Krenek 78s in the early 1950s, so think about that the next time you watch Dame Edna.
Given, additionally, that all Gál’s works are disc premières, this is in every way a splendid release.