Hans Gál (1890-1987)
Music for Voices – Volume Two
Borealis/Bridget Budge and Stephen Muir
Ian Buckle (piano)
rec. 2020, Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds, UK
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0644 
In my review of Volume One of the cycle of Hans Gál’s Music for Voices, I noted that this was a long-term project. I worried that the next volume may be a long time in appearing. Furthermore, the Hans Gál website listed many choral works, with diverse voices and accompaniments, which made me concerned that some of these may be omitted from this project. I need not have worried. This disc landed on my doorstep just over two years after the initial volume, delayed by the pandemic. It includes a wide cross-section of Gál’s music for chamber choir, including mixed voices, women’s voices and male-voice choir. Some are a cappella, others feature a piano accompaniment.
For a sketch of the composer’s life and achievement, please see my earlier assessment. Eva Fox-Gál, Bridget Budge and Stephen Muir wrote detailed liner notes, which helped me prepare this review. Precious little information about this repertoire is available elsewhere. I am grateful.
Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Rainer Maria Rilke were written for three women’s voices (or three-part women’s choir) with piano accompaniment. They were completed whilst Gál was still living in Germany. In Advent, the remarkably impressionistic piano prelude really creates “a whirlwind of snowflakes” before the voices enter with their evocative description of a winter landscape. This is a perfect Yuletide offering. The Adagio is a quiet meditation on reading a book in twilight. St Nepomuk is humorous, with its gentle mocking of the fourteenth-century Czech saint and martyr.
Drei Gesänge were premiered by Margarete Dessoff and her choir at the Town Hall, New York in 1931. The liner notes point out that they were amongst the first of Gál’s works to be broadcast in Great Britain, sung by the BBC Singers in July 1938. Der römische Brunnen is a poetic response to the Fontana dei Cavalli Marini in the Villa Borghese Gardens in Rome. Gál effortlessly uses the mixed voices to capture “the sound and movement of the water”. Am Abend is an elaborate choral setting, using contrapuntal devices to create the atmosphere of this metaphor for death. Wiegenlied is gentle and soothing in its development. The text is supposed to have been spoken by the water fairy Loreley. It was taken from Rheinmärchen (‘Rhine Fairy Tales’) by Clemens Brentano, known, amongst Mahler enthusiasts, for the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
To wine lovers, Spätlese means “a late harvest” – usually referring to a vintage made from fully ripe grapes. This is appropriate here. Gál published the collection in 1970, and it was to be his last choral piece. It sets poems by Goethe, Brentano and other German/Austrian authors. The liner notes correctly suggest that these settings “seemingly represent a desire to return to his native soil, now imbued with a deep musical wisdom wrought over a lifelong passion for the human voice”. The booklet’s commentary on Spätlese runs to over a thousand words. Briefly, these songs for male chorus display humour, storytelling, the healing nature of sleep, the release of death, sense of loss, and an energetic play on the age-old trope of the Lazy Shepherd.
It is difficult to imagine that the vivacious Two Madrigals to Poems by Thomas Lodge were written shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, whilst Gál was living and working in Edinburgh. Even more poignant, they were finished only a few months before he was interned as an “enemy alien”. Lodge was an author and a medical practitioner who lived during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. His writing was “full of playfulness, pithy short lines, and plenty of rhymes”. Her Rambling is a five-part madrigal, which seems to offer many challenges to the choir, successfully met here. Carpe Diem (Seize the Day) is designed as a vocal gavotte, full of attractive melodic devices that capture the essence of Lodge’s command to “Pluck the fruit and taste the pleasure, /Youthful lordings, of delight” for sadly “After death, when you are gone/Joy and pleasure is there none”.
Gál turned to the humorous verse of the nineteenth-century humourist and poet Wilhelm Busch for his Drei Porträtstudien. This is a witty setting of three poems for male voices with piano accompaniment. The songs charm and delight – from the gentle mocking of a pious parson to the revenge of an old donkey on some taunting schoolboys, and finally to the fly stuck in honey but eventually freed (probably) by the poet. They are full of musical onomatopoeia and delightful turns of phrase. Listen to the impression of the fly created by the piano in Der Unvorsichtige: it is nearly as good as Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee! These pieces should be in the repertoire of all male voice choirs.
In the Songs of Youth, Gál sets for women’s voices five poems by eminent English poets. First up is Crabbed Age and Youth, attributed to William Shakespeare. It is a splendid bit of musical word-painting; strong dynamic contrasts reflect the fast-changing moods of the text. Love is a Sickness by Samuel Daniel is a simple, strophic song that highlights the refrain “Why So?” with the “sardonic shrug” of “Heigh ho!” Another Shakespeare setting follows: Tell me, where is Fancy bred? taken from The Merchant of Venice. The focus here is the creation in the voices of bell-like pealing, complete with an imitation of the clapper. Capriccio is another setting of a poem by Thomas Lodge. It is also known as Rosalynde’s Madrigal. The Epilogue sets words by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. This is a meditation on the “flirtatiousness, uncertainty, lovesickness and regret” heard throughout the cycle, but encapsulated in Rochester’s words “The Present moment is all my lot”. This is truly a cycle in its study of love, which ought not to be excerpted.
Three Lyrics to Poems by Thomas Moore are scored for mixed voices and piano. I do not like to say the best is last, as everything on this disc is of considerable value, but I was impressed by this fusion of choral writing with the piano. Sacred Song is a marvellous response to a rather tacky poem. Gál has created a powerful exploration of the notion that “This world is all a fleeting show”. The liner notes suggest that this sincere setting is “one of Gál’s finest and most deeply felt creations”. Echo is dreamlike in its evocation of youth and love. It is one of the loveliest songs on this disc. Cupid’s Lottery was taken from an interlude in Moore’s libretto for a comic opera M.P. or The Blue Stocking. It seems the story was a little bit of a farce, which may nowadays be deemed politically incorrect. However, Gál’s take is full of fun, and takes a swipe at Cupid’s knavish trade. Once again, the piano part is integral to the song’s success.
The recording is to the usual high standard of Toccata Classics. I have already remarked on the dissertation-length discussion of the music in the liner notes. The texts of all the songs are given, with translations where appropriate. There is a special tribute to Tony Fox (1943-2021) who contributed much to the present project. He provided idiomatic translations of the German poems. He also created the Gál website, and translated/co-wrote the composer’s biography and internment diary Hans Gál, Music Behind Barbed Wire: A Diary of 1940, Toccata Press, 2014.
Borealis, established in 2017 and based in the North of England, is a mixed choir of 16-20 singers, directed by Bridget Budge and Stephen Muir. Their sound is an interesting blend of strength and intimacy, power and reflection. Ian Buckle provides a magnificent service at the piano, with a commanding performance of several tricky accompaniments.
The second volume of Hans Gál’s vocal music impressed me as much as the first instalment. It is a great cross-section of works composed over a period of four decades. I certainly look forward to the third.
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Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Rainer Maria Rilke, op.31 (1928)
No.3 Sankt Nepomuk
Drei Gesänge, op.37 (1929-1930)
No.1 Der römische Brunnen
No.2 Am Abend
Spätlese, op.91 (1966)
No. 1 Bruder Augustin
No. 2 Abendlied
No. 3 Nachtgesang
No. 4 Grabschrift
No. 5 Trutzlied
No. 6 Der faule Schäfer
Two Madrigals to Poems by Thomas Lodge (1939-1940)
No.1 Her Rambling
No.2 Carpe Diem
Drei Porträtstudien, op.34 (1929)
No. 1 Der Fromme
No. 2 Der Weise
No. 3 Der Unvorsichtige
Songs of Youth, op.75 (1959)
No.1 Crabbèd Age and Youth
No.2 Love is a Sickness
No.3 Tell me where is Fancy bred
Three Lyrics to Poems by Thomas Moore (1942)
No.1 Sacred Song
No.3 Cupid’s Lottery