Three of the five works on this disc—those by Hans Gál—are declared to be world premiere recordings. Only the two Krenek sonatas have been previously recorded; and indeed, in doing the background research for this review, I stumbled upon one of them, a very rare Deutsche Grammophon LP (LPEM 19126), recorded, I believe, in 1940, which features a star-studded cast of players—Johanna Martzy, Michael Mann, Jean Antonielli, Dika Newlin, and Yaltah Menuhin—in what were then considered contemporary violin and viola works by Fauré, Ravel, Milhaud, Honegger, Szymanowski, and Krenek—the latter, his sonata for viola and piano heard on the present disc. I found the above LP listed at a vinyl web site store for the modest asking price of only £1,000.00!
The title of the current album, Voices in the Wilderness, strikes a familiar, if somewhat dissonant chord. Voice (singular) in the Wilderness is, of course, a relatively well-known orchestral work by Ernst Bloch; that’s the familiar part. The part I find a bit dissonant is the pegging of Hans Gál (1890–1987) and Ernst Krenek (1900–1991) as “voices in the wilderness.” Both men, though for different reasons, sought refuge from the Nazi Anschluss—Gál in Britain and Krenek in the U.S.—neither of which whereabouts can be called a “wilderness.” But on further reflection, I realized that the word may have been intended in a different sense.
Up until 1933, Gál enjoyed considerable recognition as a composer in his native Austria, as well as in Germany. His works, especially his operas, were well received by audiences and critics alike, and he was well respected by important contemporaries, such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Fritz Busch, Richard Strauss, and George Szell. With their support, Gál was appointed director of the prestigious Mainz Conservatory in 1929. But Gál’s fortunes foundered overnight when the Nazis marched into Mainz in 1933, instantly dismissing the Jewish Gál from his post and banning all performances and publication of his works. Unable or unwilling to see the handwriting on the wall, he returned to Vienna and remained there for another five years until 1938, when Hitler finally annexed Austria.
That was the final alarm for Gál and his family to flee while they still could. What happened to him next, however, was not the happiest of circumstances, and may explain the “wilderness” reference. Gál’s intended destination was America, but he made what was to have been a pit-stop in England. Instead, he extended his stay there, and in 1940, he was arrested as an enemy alien and sent to a prison camp on the Isle of Man. Upon his release, he abandoned the idea of resettling in the U.S., choosing to make his home in Edinburgh. He taught at the university there, cofounded the Edinburgh International Festival, and became a respected member of the city’s musical scene; but his pre-World War II glory days in Austria and Germany were not to be revived. Gál was luckier than the countless souls that perished in the Holocaust, but it can’t be said that he survived to achieve the recognition and, in some cases, notoriety, that other refugee composers and musicians who settled in the U.S. went on to achieve.
And that brings us to Ernst Krenek, who was not Jewish, but who was close—very close—to that nearly incestuous circle of Austrian Jewish composers, Mahler, Zemlinsky, and Schoenberg. For Krenek, connubial bliss lasted less than a year after he married Anna Mahler, the “presumed” second child of Gustav and Alma. I say “presumed” because, as is well known, Alma enjoyed her extra-marital rolls in the hay, and in the absence of DNA evidence, who knows for sure if Gustav was Anna’s daddy? In any case, Alma was already used goods when Mahler married her, for she’d had a previous relationship with Zemlinsky. Meanwhile, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky became brothers-in-law, when the former married the latter’s sister Mathilde. One might have to consult ancestry.com to sort it all out.
Krenek, though not Jewish, as noted above, was already on the Nazis’ blacklist ofentartete (degenerate) composers, though it wasn’t his uncompromising Modernist tendencies that got him in trouble. Ironically, it was Krenek’s incredibly popular, jazz-influenced opera, Jonny spielt auf, a work which had vaulted him to fame in Europe and even the U.S., which the Nazis deemed decadent and morally loose. That entartete list automatically included composers of Jewish background, but it expanded exponentially to include many others whose music didn’t conform to and serve the blue-eyed, blond-haired Fascist ideal. Thus, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Boris Blacher, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Berthold Goldschmidt, Viktor Ullmann, and Erwin Schulhoff were among those who either emigrated to friendlier climes or, in some cases (Ullmann and Schulhoff) ended their lives in Nazi concentration camps.
It’s far from accurate to say that Krenek was a one-work composer; it is probably fair to say, though, that after Jonny he never regained the recognition and popularity he once enjoyed. Upon taking up permanent residence in the U.S. in 1938, Krenek’s music took a sharp turn towards hardcore atonality, surpassing even Schoenberg in its application of serial techniques. Krenek was an experimenter who seemingly never encountered a new method or style of composition he wasn’t willing to try, including electronically generated music. His works didn’t curry much favor with the public, and to make matters worse, his difficult, dogmatic personality put off colleagues and students alike. He was thus forced to leave a teaching position at Vassar College, and he fared no better at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnnesota. During the 1950s, Krenek taught at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, but he spent his last years in southern California, commuting between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
Though both Gál and Krenek were products of the same early 20th-century Austro-German cultural milieu that nurtured the Second Viennese School, and both of their careers were short-circuited by the events of World War II, the musical paths they took were notably different. Gál retained strong ties to his late 19th-century roots; he was a Romantic at heart who, after all, had spent 10 years co-editing with Eusebius Mandyczewski the complete works of Brahms for Breitkopf & Härtel. And that Romantic spirit lingers in these beautiful viola works by Gál on this disc.
Gál composed his Brahmsian-sounding Viola Sonata, op. 101, in Edinburgh in 1942. This is a major, never-before-recorded work for the instrument. In three movements and lasting almost 21 minutes, its pervasive mood is one of nostalgic sadness. Even theQuasi menuetto, tranquillo second movement conveys only a half-hearted pretense at cheerfulness. The last movement, marked Allegro risoluto e vivace, begins in an upbeat, jazzy manner, but its jauntiness soon turns a bit dark and ominous sounding. Gál learned well from his editing of Brahms, for the famous late Romantic composer often began a movement with a carefree, jaunty-sounding rhythm, only to turn it into something menacing. Listen, for example, to the opening of the last movement of the B♭-Major Piano Concerto.
Gál’s Impromptu was written two years earlier, in 1940, quite likely while the composer was being held prisoner. Like the first movement of the sonata, the impromptu is of an aching sadness. Once again, Brahms is the overarching influence, as I hear weaving its way through the piece Brahms’s song for voice, viola, and piano, Gestillte Sehnsucht, op. 91/1.
Gál’s Suite for Viola and Piano, op. 102a, dates from a few years later, 1949. The accompanying booklet note doesn’t explain the opus number, but hansgal.com, which gives a complete and annotated listing of the composer’s works, indicates that the original version, op. 102, was for viola and orchestra. In any case, its four movements are said to be character pieces modeled after Schumann’s Märchenbilder.
Turning to the two Krenek works on the disc—the Sonata for Viola and Piano, op. 117, composed in 1948 within the span of four days, and the Sonata for Solo Viola, op. 92/3, composed in 1942—I can honestly to say that I’ve heard pieces by Krenek much less appealing than these. Both are 12-tone works, but neither comes close to resembling some of the incomprehensible and truly ugly things that Krenek wrote. The viola and piano sonata, in particular, takes a less rigorous approach to the technique, resulting in music of a more mellifluous character that’s almost melodic sounding. The second movement ( Allegro Vivace), which functions as a scherzo, is especially clever, animated, and puckish, reminding me a bit of Mendelssohn’s way with his scherzo movements. If you never thought you could warm to a 12-tone piece, I think Krenek’s viola and piano sonata will change your mind. What makes it so delightful is that it doesn’t take itself seriously. The solo viola sonata is really no more difficult to wrap one’s ears around than the viola and piano sonata is. There are some arrestingly beautiful moments here, such as the beginning of the second movement ( Adagio). As Krenek goes, these are readily digestible pieces in an atonal idiom that puts the technique at the service of music that genuinely tries to appeal to the listener.
Violist and conductor Roger Benedict is active as both performer and pedagogue. In 2002 he moved to Australia from the United Kingdom to take up the positions of principal viola of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, artistic director of the orchestra’s Fellowship Program, and senior lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Additionally, he appears regularly as a conductor and soloist, both in Australia and abroad. He is a player after my heart, drawing from his instrument a gorgeous, dark-hued tone that’s completely free of any nasality in the higher positions, and he wrings from the Gál pieces a tearful but tasteful expressivity without turning them into treacly tear-jerkers.
For 12 years, pianist Timothy Young has been a resident artist and faculty member at the Australian National Academy of Music and is currently co-ordinator of piano there. In a wide-ranging repertoire, he performs regularly in recital as a soloist and in partnership with leading Australian and international musicians and ensembles. Timothy fleshes out the harmonic framework of the Gál pieces with a rich tonal palette that simultaneously supports and enhances the viola part, and in the Krenek piece for viola and piano he exhibits a rhythmic alacrity that enlivens the dialogue between the two instruments.
Roger Benedict has authored his own very informative booklet note, and the recording, made in the Australian National Academy of Music, South Melbourne Town Hall, achieves an exemplary balance between the players in an open, bright, yet warm and detailed acoustic setting. If this album is not available at the usual retail outlets by the time you read this, you can purchase it—and trust me, you should—from the record label’s web site at melbarecordings.com.au.