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Leon McCawleyTalks about Hans Gál’s Piano Music

by Martin Anderson
posted 21 May 2006

A three-disc boxed set of piano music recently released by Avie marks the most important step to date in the rediscovery of the music of the Austrian composer Hans Gál (1890–1987). Gál was one of those myriad composers who, being Jewish, found the world turned upside when those twelve mad years of Nazi perversity began. He was one of the most successful composers in the German-speaking world when Hitler came to power, his operas a mainstay of the repertoire; he was also a respected teacher, then the head of the Conservatory in Mainz . Of course, he was summarily dismissed from his post, and performances of his works banned; he duly returned to Vienna . Five years later, when the Anschluss came, Gál was in no doubt as to what lay ahead and he and his family fled to Britain . After a period in London , Gál found a post at Edinburgh University , pretty well invented for him by Sir Donald Tovey, coming to Gál’s aide through respect for his musicianship. After a distressing patch of internment as an ‘enemy alien’ (the crude British policy – to ‘collar the lot’ – meant that Jewish refugees could find themselves confined with genuine Nazis), Gál regained Edinburgh and remained there for the rest of his long life, respected, even loved, as a musician, teacher and writer.

His music, though, had almost vanished from concert programmes and recordings were as rare as dolphin feathers. Having had the chalice ripped from his hands in 1933 and 1938, Gál seemed at last poised for widespread, if posthumous, rediscovery a decade back when one of his four operas was scheduled for recording as a Decca/London ‘Entartete Musik’ release – and then the company pulled the rug on the series as a whole.

I had the honour to know Hans Gál towards the end of his long life. In the years just before his death in 1987 I used to visit him in his Edinburgh home on my Christmas trips back to Scotland . Talking to him about growing up in Mahler’s Vienna , almost a century earlier, was both thrilling and humbling: as a six-year-old he attended one of Mahler’s first performances at the Vienna Court Opera – in 1897! You can find an interview I taped with him on one of those visits on this website.

Things at last seem to be taking off for Gál’s music. A Hans Gál Society has been launched (details at the hugely informative website www.hansgal.com, maintained by the composer’s son-in-law, Tony Fox). There are mutterings from several quarters of a cycle of his four symphonies, and his four string quartets are poised to emerge from Meridian , in performances (fittingly enough) by the Edinburgh String Quartet. The most important milestone yet erected on this road to rediscovery is Avie’s complete recording of his piano music, performed by the English pianist Leon McCawley. How, I asked him, did he come to make its acquaintance?

‘I came into contact with the music through Eva [Eva Fox-Gál, the composer’s daughter]. I was playing in York , Eva lives in York , and she plays in the City of York Guildhall , and I was playing with the orchestra, Rachmaninov Three with Simon Wright. Members of the orchestra offer the soloist an overnight stay. So it was really fate that brought us together, because I could have stayed with various people, but Eva offered hospitality and I stayed overnight with her. I was practicing my Rachmaninov on the piano and she came up to me the following day and suggested, why don’t you have a look at this music? At that time she had just given me the Preludes [Gál’s 24 Preludes, Op. 83] (I didn’t know anything about the other music) and said: ‘You are most welcome to take them home with you and have a look’ – I couldn’t exactly sight-read them because they’re very difficult!’ Had McCawley even heard of the name before? ‘I had never heard of him. I had no recollection of the name. Conductors know the name because he edited Brahms’ symphonies, but I had not come across him at all.’ So when was this first encounter? ‘February ’98 – it was that long ago. So I took the music back, but was doing lots of other things, and over the course of time I left the music out and would look at it and delve into one prelude. At the end of a practice day I would keep opening the book and learning them – and then gradually loving them. It was only later on (it must have been two or three years later), when I was in contact with Eva and said I would like to play some of the music in my recitals, she hinted that her son was a producer and engineer and that we should meet; he lived in London and I lived in London as well, and that we should get together and talk about Gál’s music. So from then on I found out a little bit more about the composer and that he wrote an enormous amount of music.’ Had McCawley at this point any inkling of just how much piano music there was? ‘No, because there wasn’t a website and I didn’t really ask a lot of questions to Eva about his music at that time. It was only when I when I started to seriously look at it and become interested that I started asking questions and, having met Simon [Fox, the composer’s record-producer grandson], I realiSed there was an enormous amount of piano music.

‘Now, at that time, the music hadn’t been republished; it was out of print, so I kept asking for copies of the music, the Sonata, for example, and the Sonatinas, so eventually I was looking through all the music. The first piece that I performed of Gál’s was about 2001, when I performed the Sonata. That was Eva’s suggestion: ‘This is the most substantial work – if you are interested in his music, you should really look at this and perform it first.’ So I received the Sonata and managed to program it in several recitals. And then, because it went down very well, we talked about the possibility of recording some of the music on one disc and trying to get some record company interested. Simon Fox was recording for Avie at that time and I had just met Simon Foster and was going to be recording the Schumann, so it just worked out. Simon Foster was very enthusiastic about the music, and so the recording came about.

‘At that point it was only going to be one CD. But then the family decided, what the hell, you may as well do all of it! At that point I hadn’t seen the fugues; I didn’t know anything about the fugues [Gál’s 24 Fugues, Op. 108, his swansong]. I had received everything else – and I hadn’t seen the Sketches. So this filtered through: ‘Oh, by the way, there are 24 fugues.’ More music to learn? I can’t believe it! At that time I doubted: I wasn’t so sure that the fugues would work – I was expecting them to be very dry and academic. But I was very surprised when I started looking through them. It did take me a while to assimilate them, and probably a few weeks after I was still unsure if this was going to work – I was trying to convince them that maybe two CDs would be best. But again, I really fell in love with the fugues and found them the most gratifying of all. I enjoyed learning all the music, and these fugues were very challenging. I thought the music was so beautiful, and everything is so beautifully crafted – especially these fugues.’ The 24 Fugues are certainly the most ‘serious,’ the weightiest, music here; for me they evoke memories of Shostakovich’s Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues; they’re not as monumental but the same lean, hard-thinking counterpoint informs both works. McCawley agrees: ‘You do hear more of the Russian school in the fugues; they have a sharper edge to them, don’t they, especially the minor ones. He’s obviously very influenced by Bach – he follows the fugue style in a very strict and concise way. They’re all miniatures; they’re not large-scale at all, but they have the impact of a large-scale work.’ And they show a toughness in his character that you don’t get in the other pieces. ‘Yes, that’s true. I think probably that, at the end of his life, he felt this was his final calling-card, and he wanted to end with his most profound pieces for piano – and he certainly did that.’ Indeed, it’s remarkable that these fugues could have been written by a 90-year-old: There’s no lessening of concentration. Precisely the opposite, in fact – it’s as if he girded up all that he had learned in the previous decades. ‘And Simon tells me that he never worked at the keyboard: It was all done in his head.’ He composed standing up, moreover – he used what the Germans call a Stehpult! ‘Yes, it’s quite unbelievable. I don’t know how long it took him to complete the fugues, but it was obviously in a matter of months. And the Preludes were written in his seventies, too. But it is extraordinary that the Fugues were written in his nineties: You would have thought that he would be composing miniatures at the end of his life, something like the Three Preludes. He probably wanted to compose the Fugues because of the Preludes; he probably had in his mind that ‘It’s something to do before I go’!’ What’s the more astonishing, indeed, is that, unlike most composers, it’s not a pairing of a prelude and a fugue but a pairing of 24 preludes with 24 fugues.

But let’s go back to consider the preludes themselves, composed in 1960: Gál, then 70, was confined to a hospital bed for a fortnight and decided to write a prelude a day to keep his mind occupied, refining the cycle over the months that followed. ‘But, again, they are so pianistic, you would expect him to have worked at the keyboard. His style is unique, but you do hear the influence of Rachmaninov and Chopin and Scriabin. It’s very pianistic writing, something that was very close to him. When you hear recordings of his playing, he was a wonderful player. He knew how to colour; his phrasing was beautiful; he played in a very concise way and didn’t use very much pedal – it’s all very much in the style of the early twentieth century.’ That’s my recollection of hearing him (regrettably briefly) in the flesh. He must have been 95 or 96 when he sat at the piano to show me that an operation on each hand had not impaired his ability to play the piano – and then produced some of the most limpidly beautiful Bach I have ever heard, as clear as glass, every note precisely weighted, poised and articulate.

Gál did commit some of his piano music to recordings, as McCawley explains. ‘He recorded all the fugues, in 1980, in the year of their composition. They were recorded privately; it must have been in Edinburgh . And he recorded the preludes as well, privately. There are no recordings of him playing the other works, unfortunately. There is a recording of him playing the Concertino, but not the solo piano works. I was very impressed by his recordings. I didn’t know what to expect. Simon did warn me that it’s not the best recording, and he is in his nineties. And the fingers weren’t 100%, but there’s still a lot to take note of and admire.’ So McCawley studied the composer’s own interpretations before he went into the studio? ‘Yes, I listened to them at the beginning when I started learning them, just to get an idea, and then I didn’t listen to them at all during my study of them. Close to the recording, I came back to them and listened to them again.’

Having put Gál’s readings of the Preludes and Fugues aside while he worked on his own interpretations, how did McCawley react to them when he picked them up again nearer the recording? ‘It was strange, really. Over the course of time, as I was learning them, I treated them quite Romantically and was taking quite a few liberties, perhaps thinking of them too much like the earlier style. So when I heard Gál’s performance of these again, and when I talked to Simon Fox (we worked together a few weeks before the recording), we both agreed that you have to be a little bit removed in these works, not to play with your heart on your sleeve, not to be warm-blooded.’ Are we talking of the Fugues in particular here? ‘Yes. You’ve got to be slightly restrained in order to play them well. And to play them with a very, very strict rhythm. I was playing them in quite a free way. So I changed the way I played them. I was convinced then, having heard Gál again. It was strange how I interpreted them in a different way but then came back – but that’s sometimes what happens when you learn a new piece: You go in one direction and then you realize this isn’t right, it doesn’t work. It’s possible I could have recorded them in that other way, but because we’ve got that evidence of Gál’s playing on disc, we have to follow the composer’s intentions.’

Was he less severe in his playing of the Preludes? ‘Yes, much more relaxed. But rhythm is very important for Gál, and the small rhythmic units have to be played very tightly. The rubato is very subtle. But in a way that’s how I perform someone like Rachmaninov: I do take liberties, but I don’t go overboard – especially in the Preludes; they could really be sentimental. So to try and make them sound profound and beautiful but in a concise way is a big challenge. That’s why miniatures are always so difficult to bring off: You’ve got to try and encapsulate a mood in a very short time. So that’s what I was working on and just trying to play with feeling but not get carried away.’ A lot of the Gál Preludes are rather slight – if you were to overplay them, you’d do them in. ‘Yes, you would. And the contrapuntal element is evident throughout his work, and bringing out the inner voices – there are so many! – is very important. What was wonderful is that I got on so well with Simon and we totally agreed the way of interpreting his music.’

From the start of Gál’s surviving piano output, the Three Sketches of 1910–11, to those late fugues, though there’s a variety of mood, one characteristic common to all of them is an absolute transparency of texture. ‘Yes, that’s the word I would use. Very transparent.’ Which makes the pianist’s job all the more difficult. ‘Exactly – you can’t get away with anything! You can’t stick the pedal down and hope for the best. That makes it more tricky, but that’s really the challenge of a pianist; it’s something I incorporate in all the repertoire I play. It’s important with Classical music and Romantic, especially with Chopin and Rachmaninov, because they are contrapuntal, too. In the Sonata there are perhaps elements of Impressionism. That could have been a route we could have gone down, and it would have been totally wrong to make it wishy-washy and overpedalled; it can be dreamy, but transparent and clear. You can create that mood with your fingers and the colour rather than with the pedal.’ There’s also a degree of reserve in the music. ‘There’s an honesty to it, and I find it’s quite innocent as well.’ It’s not front-on the way Brahms or Schumann is; instead, it’s a step or two back from the listener. ‘It’s that restrained. Even though there’s so much humour in it – it’s witty, it’s playful, and at times it’s very quirky – it is restrained. But there’s an elegance in that; it’s not to say it’s lacking depth. There is depth there, but it’s not the fullbloodedness of Brahms. It’s smaller in scale, it’s more intricate in the writing. But that’s not to say that it’s not challenging: It’s very difficult technically, because there’s a lot going on in the music.’ Throughout, in fact, since even in the slower pieces there’s a tremendous rhythmic vivacity. ‘It appears to me that he didn’t really like the pianist to linger in his slow movements. In most of his writing he gives very specific metronome marks. So, for example, in the Arioso of the Second Sonatina, it’s a slow movement, but it’s at mark 72, so it’s more of a flowing Andante feel. Most of the slow movements do have this constant flow to them; nothing ever drags. The only real slow movement is the second movement of the Sketches, which is a Lento; everything else really flows.’

It struck me, listening to the Suite for the first time, that if I wanted to describe its character in an instant, I would posit it as a very close relative of Grieg’s Holberg Suite. McCawley is obviously surprised by the parallel but quickly agrees: ‘Yes, perhaps, there are elements of Grieg.’ And by the same token you can easily imagine the Gál Suite recast for string orchestra. ‘Yes, a lot of the piano music you can imagine orchestrated, can’t you? That’s because the voicing is so clear, and a lot of it is in four voices. That shows how wonderful he is as a composer, and how seriously he took everything. Nothing’s at all trivial; it’s all very carefully written.’

The earliest works in McCawley’s set, the Three Sketches, suggest a direction that Gál could perhaps have taken but didn’t. ‘I don’t think that he had quite decided what his stamp as a composer would be; he was still searching. The whole thing is very much early Brahms. There’s a folk element, a dance element to his music, too: Ländler, Viennese waltzes – that’s in all the music, especially the Preludes. The Suite, really, is the first major work that is definitive Gál.’

Mention of Brahms reminds me of the response Hans Gál made to a question of mine as I was getting to know him: ‘There’s a rumor that you played the piano to Brahms – is it true?’ He didn’t say ‘No’ – his answer (still in a Viennese accent) was: ‘What do you expect? I was only six when he died.’ (In fact, it was Robert Mayer who, as a boy, had performed for Brahms; Gál being another survivor from those times, the story had somehow got transferred to him.)

The early reactions to McCawley’s set have been universally welcoming. ‘They have, they’ve been very enthusiastic. I’ve been playing the Sonata a few years and audiences have reacted very well to it. And I’ve programmed the Suite and hope to be doing it and the Second Sonatina more; I think those two pieces will go down very well with audiences. The comments I have had are that the music is very accessible, accessible for everybody – even though it is challenging: You do have to listen to the Sonata a few times. But for the general public, it’s something that people can latch on to and understand immediately.’

So far this has been an exclusive European product: Austrian-Scottish composer, performed by an English pianist recorded on a London-based label. Might Fanfare readers have come across McCawley’s playing on their side of the pond? ‘Yes, I’ve played in Dallas with the Dallas Symphony, and with the Minnesota Orchestra. I’ve played with orchestras in San José and other places. I’ve done recitals in Washington and Philadelphia and Cleveland . The last concert I gave was in Miami , in the Miami International Piano Festival. And in November I’m going to Cincinnati to play with the Cincinnati Symphony.’ And what of his recorded profile? ‘The first recording I made was Samuel Barber’s complete piano music, for Virgin. Then I made a Beethoven disc, a mix of sonatas and variations, that was originally for Black Box and then it was re-released on Sanctuary Classics when they took over the label. Since then I’ve been making records for Avie. The most recent one was Schumann, a double CD of Schumann’s music. Now there’s the Gál. And the next thing is all the Mozart sonatas for Avie, recording them with Simon Fox because we got on so well. I’ll be finishing them in May, and hopefully they’ll be released in the summer, during the anniversary year. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I was going to do one CD and thought because of the anniversary that I should really go for it. It will probably be four or five CDs.’

Any last thoughts, for the nonce, on Hans Gál? ‘It has been a thrill to learn the music, and it was fate that brought me to it, though, having met Eva, it did take a while to come through in the end. I’m just so glad I learned the music. It was quite risky at the time: I did spend the best part of a year learning the music, and I’m so glad that so far it has received a good feedback. I’ve been loving the music, and I hope to be performing it in recitals. I’m not the sort of person who likes to learn something, record it, and then put it away and forget about it. I definitely want to perform it in recitals – though it might be difficult to program the Fugues! And hopefully I’ll be able to perform it in America as well: I’m sure they’ll be interested in Gál’s music over in America.

First published in Fanfare, Vol. 29, No. 4; Leon MacCawley’s set of Hans Gál’s piano music is reviewed here – ed.

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