Hans Gál: The Complete Works for Solo Piano

Gál: The Complete Works for Solo Piano

Sonata, Op. 28; Suite, Op. 24; Two Sonatinas, Op. 58: No. 1 in C; No. 2 in A minor; 24 Preludes, Op. 83; 24 Fugues, Op. 108.Leon McCawley (pf) Avie AV2064 (3 CDs: 78:47; 50:02; 59:54)

Hans Gál’s music is a direct reflection of the man – gentle and unemphatic, wearing its immense learning lightly; deeply civilised; warm and engaging, even playful, behind a slightly formal exterior. The Sonata which opens this three-disc set opens not with some barnstorming Allegro con fuoco but Tranquillo e semplice. That first CD collects seven separate works, written between 1910 and 1951. They’re presented out of chronological order, maximising contrast but sacrificing the sense of Gál’s stylistic evolution. I’m not sure it’s that much of a loss, though: Once we’re past the rather Brahmsian Three Sketches of 1910–11 (infectiously good music in its own right, whatever its indebtedness – the coquettish first of them, Allegretto vivace, will melt your heart), Gál has more or less found his voice. The Suite of 1922 ostensibly uses neo-Classical, even neo-Baroque, forms, but he somehow manages to infuse the second-movement Menuett with the heady swirls of the Viennese waltz. Even though the language is still the same, there’s a hint of darkness in the two Sonatinas, written in 1951: Gál’s music may not have been touched by modernism, but his life was turned upside down by the modern age, and it would be remarkable, despite his extraordinary equanimity, if that weren’t reflected in his music somehow. In the event, the disturbance, though perceptible, is minimal, taking the form of a degree of obliquity in the harmony: Gál may have reasoned that, if the world were going mad, there was all the more reason for him to retain his own sanity.

Whatever the qualities of the works on the first disc (and not the least of them is charm), it’s with the 24 preludes which occupy the second and the 24 fugues inhabiting the third that we have the most important music in the set. The preludes are not all weighty or deep, but then they weren’t intended to be: Gál wrote them for his own amusement. And Lloyd Moore’s excellent booklet notes record that

All the basic elements of Gál’s style – melodic flow, formal clarity, humour and lyricism – are present and they cover a broad range of character and mood. No. 5 is reminiscent of Prokofiev in its march-like rhythms and wry side-stepping modulations; No. 7 is a masterly essay in twos against threes; No. 21 is an ingenious study in the opposition of black against white keys […].

He can hardly detail them all, but his tips alert us to keep our ears alert as the cavalcade cartwheels past.

The most succulent meat of the set, though, has to be the 24 fugues, written when the composer was 90, even if the inventiveness and resourcefulness of the music constantly give the lie to that fact. And there may be a lifetime’s learning distilled in these works, but there’s still a young man’s spirit in their sheer vivacity. Necessarily, such a long span of twentieth-century fugal counterpoint recalls Shostakovich’s Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues to mind, and there are points where Gál is very close to the more lyrical Shostakovich. But Gál was not the forceful personality that Shostakovich was, and you emerge from this set of fugues with your soul refreshed in a much gentler manner. What’s more, it’s a work to come back to again and again: I’ve got lots more out of the music on each subsequent hearing; each time it seems both fresher and more timeless.

Leon McCawley’s playing is top-drawer stuff. He’s a model of textural clarity – just what this music requires – but there’s plenty of sap in his veins, too, as he finds that elusive middle way between cautious respect and evangelizing over-insistence. The producer, Simon Fox, the composer’s grandson, has given him recorded sound of crystalline clarity, and I’ve already commended Lloyd Moore’s note. A wonderful set – go for it!