Gal - Piano Concerto; Mozart - Piano Concerto no.22
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Cat No: AV2358
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 6th May 2016
WorksPiano Concerto, op.57
Piano Concerto no.22 in E flat major, K482
ArtistsSarah Beth Briggs (piano)
Royal Northern Sinfonia
Interview with Sarah Beth Briggs, May 2016
Sarah Beth Briggs: The Gál Piano Concerto is such an amazing piece. It’s extraordinary that it’s not become part of the mainstream repertoire well before now.
Europadisc: Yes, the very opening is so shimmering, and one’s immediate thought is, ‘Why haven’t I heard this before?’ Is it often played in public?
It was played several times in concert shortly after it was written in 1948, then years and years went by without any performances at all, and then a German pianist (Hartmut Hudezeck) decided to do some performances of it fairly recently. But this is the first time it’s been recorded, and it’s not been performed in this country since the early 1950s, very shortly after it was written.
How did you first encounter Gál’s music?
Simon Fox-Gál – who is Hans Gál’s grandson – has been the producer for all five of my solo CDs, so there is a sort of personal connection with the piece. But then it happened that Antonio Meneses was recording the Cello Concerto for Avie, and Simon said to me, ‘You wouldn’t do me a favour, would you, and play through it with Antonio before he goes up to record it?’ It was a very helpful way into Gál, because I came to the music through the orchestral reduction, and I learnt so much about the way Gál writes for the whole of the orchestra, not just for the soloist. That was a fascinating journey for me, and a good place to have come from in terms of performing it. This is where I feel parallels with the Mozart Concerto [in E flat, K482], because as in Mozart, where every member of the orchestra is playing a crucial role, whether in the thematic material or the important textural background, we get the same in the Gál on a much bigger scale. Of course it’s a disc of huge contrasts, but I think there are some really important parallels between the two pieces as well. When I came to the Gál initially, it seemed almost like a big Romantic piano concerto but with a modern twist: you’ve got all the pyrotechnics and cadenza-like passages that are going to appeal to people. But at the same time there’s this Mozartian precision, and the need all the time for the soloist to be a team player rather than a ‘prima donna’. So at the beginning the piano’s just bubbling and all the interest’s in the orchestra until eventually the piano explodes at that first cadenza. Perhaps people’s expectations in Romantic piano concertos would be for the soloist to dominate more, so here they may be surprised by all the moments, especially in the first movement, where the pianist is a team player. People have made interesting comments to me like ‘it’s Britten mixed with Poulenc, Mahler mixed with Brahms’ and so on... One can see all these elements coming into it, but at the same time I think Gál’s got a very personal language. You can’t say it’s Britten mixed with Poulenc, because it’s Gál! I’ve also been involved recently in a chamber music festival in Aberdeen – two concerts showcasing the huge variety in Gál’s writing. My involvement with that and with playing the orchestral reduction of the Cello Concerto for Antonio Meneses has made me appreciate Gál’s unique and fascinating voice. I don’t think people should try and see it as something else, but rather just understand it for what it is.
Is there a central European flavour to his musical language?
I think there is, definitely. It clearly wasn’t modern enough for some people [at the time], and that’s why it’s taken such a long time for people to ‘get’ it. But things don’t have to be atonal all the time to be interesting! For me certainly there are bits of it that would clearly place it round the time it was actually written (1948). There are some big Brahmsian moments but one would immediately know that it wasn’t Brahms! In some ways it’s difficult to place. I feel underlying hints of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, so a real mix and plenty of humour.
Yes, the last movement seems particularly tongue-in-cheek...
Absolutely, yes. I ran the slow movement past a few people and they noted its gorgeous tunes and immediate approachability. To me this is music that could easily sit comfortably on Classic FM. Hearing that movement first perhaps made some people even more curious about the much more modern twist that one senses in the outer movements.
There’s a spikiness to the last movement, isn’t there?
Yes, absolutely, and all those sort of harmonic surprises. It was such a great project, and the orchestra were fabulous. And Ken Woods, of course, is a Gál expert, having done all the symphonies, the Violin Concerto and a lot of chamber music, and he was absolutely on his home ground. It was a nice combination of being with someone who’s absolutely at home with the music, and also having the personal connection through Gál’s grandson, which meant that I could prepare the Concerto with him, getting a lot of feedback on what he believed Gál would have wanted. I also spoke to Eva (Gál’s daughter) quite a bit about it as well, and she heard it before I recorded it.
Was there a sense of discovery for you with this particular piece?
Totally, yes! Because I came to it through the Cello Concerto and a lot of the chamber music, I thought I’d come to know a certain ‘Gál style’, but at every corner there are surprises, which is exciting. I’m also glad I made a very definite decision to pair it with something totally different, and yet it’s a combination that I really believe works. And of course the Mozart has another premiere within it, because the cadenzas are getting their first recording. They were written in 1953 by my late teacher, Denis Matthews, for Myra Hess. I was given all the cadenzas that Denis had written on my twelfth birthday, with a message to say that he hoped I would play them all one day. The connection with Myra Hess, having been a Myra Hess Award winner, is a special one and Denis was the most important figure in my musical development, so an opportunity to record these wonderful cadenzas was not to be missed. I just think they sit beautifully, I mean they’re so stylistically appropriate. They’re not the kind of cadenzas that go off at their own tangent – they just feel so right within the Mozart, and also there’s quite a lot of Denis’s ornamentation in the last movement, which was left quite empty [by Mozart], especially in the middle section which I think is really beautiful.
One of the unusual things about this disc is that it features two figures (Gál and Matthews) who for many years were known mainly as academics.
It’s interesting the number of people who’ve said to me they first came to Gál through either his writings on Schubert or his writings on Brahms. I think he was a great writer, but it’s quite strange given the quality of his music that he wasn’t known more for his music as well as his academic writings. And Denis Matthews was quite a big name in the war years, but he had this condition which affected his fingers, and that sent him into academic life more than performance. He wrote a Master Musicians book on Beethoven and edited the Mozart piano sonatas and all that kind of thing, so there’s a link there. I just wish I’d known about it, because I gathered from a dear friend of mine – who was a close friend of Denis Matthews – that he and Gál did in fact know each other, and that Denis was impressed by Gál’s music. I wish I’d known more of that at the time! That would have been another interesting thing to add to the pot. I have heard from so many people about what a delight Gál was as a personality. I just wish I had met him myself!
1Gal - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op.57: I. Allegro energico ma non troppo
2Gal - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op.57: II. Adagio
3Gal - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op.57: III. Allegretto vivace
4Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major, K. 482: I. Allegro
5Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major, K. 482: II. Andante semplice
6Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major, K. 482: III. Allegro
Born in 1890 at Brunn am Gebirge, near Vienna, Gál studied in the Austrian capital under Guido Adler and Brahms's friend Eusebius Mandyczewski. His early training combined historical studies with composition, and in the post-WWI years his opera Die heilige Ente (‘The Sacred Duck’) was particularly successful. In 1929 he was appointed Director of the Mainz Conservatory, but the rise of Hitler saw Gál's suspension in March 1933. He and his family moved back to Vienna, but the Anschluss again forced them to relocate, this time to England. Gál was invited to Edinburgh by Donald Tovey and, although he was interned for four months in 1940 as an enemy alien, he subsequently returned to Edinburgh where, after the end of WWII, he was appointed lecturer. A founding member of the Edinburgh International Festival, he continued to teach and compose well into retirement, and he died in 1987 at the ripe old age of 97.
A leading light in the current Gál revival is conductor Kenneth Woods, who has recorded all four of Gál's symphonies, as well as several other works, for the Avie label. Having already issued discs of the Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto, Avie now give us the premiere recording of the 1948 Piano Concerto with Sarah Beth Briggs as soloist and the Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by Woods, and what a treat it is. From the moment it bursts into life with shimmering piano figuration accompanying a high violin and woodwind line, this is music of immense individuality and character, immaculately crafted and formally assured. The first movement is redolent of Zemlinsky, Busoni and other early-twentieth-century figures who chose a different, more tonally-centred path than the Second Viennese School, and it combines ardent lyricism with a light playfulness. Virtuoso gestures are tastefully integrated within the whole, so that piano and orchestra work very much as a team, the music dazzling without blinding.
The Adagio second movement opens with beautiful woodwind and string solos, opening out majestically before the piano brings into play a soulful lyricism which marries rhapsody with real thoughtfulness and moments of captivating stillness. There are moments of reflectiveness, too, in the Allegretto finale but, as if to wake the listener from the slow movement’s reverie, the prevailing spirit is one of impish glee combined with a Prokofiev-like pungency. It provides a stark contrast with all that has gone before, yet complements it perfectly. Belying its compact dimensions, this is a Concerto of some stature, and it’s baffling that it could have been neglected for so many years. Sarah Beth Briggs’s brilliantly alert and engaging performance, expertly partnered by Woods and the RNS, will surely bring it the recognition it deserves as one of Gál's major works.
If that hasn’t already whetted your appetite, the coupling is an inspired one: Mozart’s late E flat Piano Concerto, K482, in a marvellously elegant performance that brings out all the clarinet-tinged mellowness, with a heart-stopping account of the C minor second movement. Here, as in the Gál, soloist and orchestra are balanced in ideal partnership, with playing of real poise and purpose, underlining the quintessential Viennese qualities that bind both works. Added value comes in the form of cadenzas and further ornamentation by Briggs’s long-time teacher, the late Denis Matthews: originally written for Dame Myra Hess, they are perfectly stylish, models of Mozartian taste. They provide the icing on the cake for a release that is outstanding in every way, essential listening!
Please see the 'about' section for an exclusive interview with pianist Sarah Beth Briggs.
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