Austrian-British Early Modern composer Hans Gál OBE [1890–1987] wrote four string quartets.
The Fourth Quartet opens in a traditional Gál manner, one which permeates all of his string quartets. The sound is one of brilliantly expressive, other-worldly melodies over a sumptuous string background. Suddenly, a tempo brings life to the piece and atonal phrases are scattered freely throughout this quite tempestuous section. The mood now reverts back to the sparse nature of the beginning, and is possibly even more measured. Two violins, in different registers, create long, mysterious melodic lines that have an unusual sense of strength in their abstract nature. The cello steps forward and mingles with its own, similar melodic lines and we have three pitch registers making up the sound. A change brings about a more expansive passage, however the violins and cello continue to express positive statements, with an occasional pizzicato background. The dynamics increase in intensity and a particularly strong passage ensues. A sense of moderate, but constant abstraction is most beguiling – sometimes it seems almost rhapsodic. Now, a controlled passage with another sense of sparsity unfolds. Nearing the end, the cello incites the ensemble into a short, torrid passage with a final flourish.
The next, brief movement features a dance-like tempo, with positive violin melodies – this is much lighter in texture than that which has gone before. The characteristic constant violin phrases bring a fullness to the sound. A sustained chord signals the end.
This time, for the third movement, there is a definite change of texture, at least for a time. A cello pulsing leads the violins into sombre territory, with tightly controlled lamenting melodic lines. A sustained ensemble chord frees the first violin for a brief solo passage but the status quo is soon resumed, although there is a little more use of harmony here, something that I hadn’t noticed before with the constancy of the melodic development. A new sense of sparsity evokes the first movement, albeit at a slower tempo. Some harmonised melodic lines are heard for the first time in the work – these bring about a new texture, which is somewhat mournful. A scattering of pizzicato strokes lead to a gentle finish.
Strong, somewhat light hearted violins introduce the final movement. This feeling is definitely more optimistic, and has a distinctively British quality. Melodically, this is quite a contrast to the first three movements with not a hint of abstraction to be heard. A brief, slightly pensive passage quickly moves into a sweeping mood with the violins in full flight. The end comes with a positively orchestral like sound that concludes very strongly.
I think it is worth noting that the four quartets were composed in 1916, 1929, 1969 and 1970 respectively. In other words they are in two pairs, written nearly forty years apart. I recently heard the Second Quartet and recall it to be very similar in style to the much later work under discussion. Gál’s style is certainly unique, in that he constantly works with the same textures, that is, a constant stream of non-harmonised melodies with occasional diversions into other moods.
Wikipedia has this to say on Gál’s consistency of style: Gál’s style is rooted in the Austro-German musical tradition, but from the early 1920s he had developed his own musical language, to which he remained true throughout his long career. He never followed prevailing fashions, nor abandoned his belief in the importance of tonality.
All of the composer’s quartets are available but I selected Hans Gál: String Quartets, Vol. 1, performed by the Edinburgh Quartet on the Meridian label for review as it appears to be the most reasonably priced. Volume 2 is rather expensive and only available from Amazon UK Resellers – there is also a 2-CD complete set which contains the four quartets together with other pieces for string quartet.
Listenability: I found all of Gál’s quartets to be rather interesting – a unique stylist.