Biographically, Hans Gál and Ernst Krenek have quite a lot in common. Both were Austrian but from families further afield (Gál is a Hungarian name and Krenek Czech, as the hacek that once sat above the ‘r’ in his surname used to reveal). Both made their mark as operatic composers not only in Vienna but in the German-speaking world more generally, Gál with the second of his four operas, Die heilige Ente (1920), and Krenek with his fifth, Jonny spielt auf (1926), each a runaway success. And then both, of course, ran up against the Nazis and became, as the title of the CD has it, ‘Voices in the Wilderness’, neither of them gaining the currency they had once enjoyed.
Musically, though, they were very different. Gál’s style was formed from a firm late-Romantic marriage of melody and harmony that emerged from Brahms; Krenek’s began in that stream of Austro-German modernism that has its origins in Bach and leapfrogged Romantic sensibilities entirely. The first two works on this CD underline the differences with crystal clarity. Gál’s Op. 101 and Krenek’s Op. 117, both viola sonatas, were written only six years apart, Gál’s in 1942 and Krenek’s in 1948, but they are worlds apart: even in the finale, the most rhythmically active of its three movements, the Gál is concerned with an overarching sweep of bittersweet melody, whereas the Krenek is a non-doctrinaire twelve-tone work and, at ten minutes, half the length of the Gál. The tone of the Gál is essentially conversational, both between the two instruments and in their attitude to the listener; the Krenek is a gently declamatory monologue, the viola line decorated rather than supported by the piano part in the Andante first movement, the tables turned in the second, a brief Allegro vivace scherzo with an introspective trio, and viola and piano advancing nervously apace in the Andantino finale.
After the dry-eyed, harmonically brittle sound-world of the Krenek Op. 117 Gál’s achingly lovely Impromptu, an exquisite gem written for his son Peter, unfolds a melody of irresistible appeal – and though it’s only four and a half-minutes in length, it’s by far the most memorable piece in this recital. It’s followed by Krenek’s Solo Viola Sonata, Op. 92 No. 3, where it’s Krenek’s turn to show that his idiom, too, can be deeply expressive: the work as a whole is shot through with a sense of loss, particularly the Adagio, second of four movements; the Vivace scherzo is playful in the way that people laugh to avoid crying, and the closing Chaconne, marked Allegro con vigore, has a bleak nobility about it.
The programming continues to turn expectation on its head with the last item, Gál’s Suite for viola and piano, Op. 102a (‘a’ because Op. 102 plain is for viola and orchestra): here, though the opening Cantabile (marked Largo) is predictably expansive, the next movement (Furioso: Allegro con fuoco) brings an ill-tempered march, and the melody of the minuet which follows shows a fondness for chromatic inflection – both surprising features if you thought you had the measure of Gál’s idiom. The finale, though animated by a Puckish energy, also has a no-nonsense character that drives on its dancing rhythms.
All three Gál works are receiving their first recordings here, and for the Krenek pieces it’s as good as (Op. 92 No. 3 was previously recorded in a 12-CD set from the Southwest Chamber Music Society on Cambria in 2000, and Op. 117 is available only in a historical recording). They have fallen into very good hands: British-born Roger Benedict (once a prominent figure in the musical life of his native sod and now Principal Viola of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) plays with a tone that is clean, accurate and full; and Timothy Young, Head of Piano at the Australian Academy of Music, negotiates some klipspringer rhythms with ease. The Melba engineers have caught them faithfully, in a warm and detailed acoustic. Benedict supplies a literate and informative booklet text, and although page 9 promises a ‘full version of this essay’ on the Melba website, I couldn’t find it – but you don’t need it to enjoy this excellent disc, which goes some way to rescuing its two composers from the wilderness of the title.