“To say that Hans Gál was unique is not to suggest that his work is quirky or inaccessible.
Hardly a single track on this admirable and musically worthwhile collection lacks interest, colour or instant appeal. And yet Gál was no mindless lightweight: a strain of deeper meaning invariably lingers somewhere beneath his compact and attractive surfaces.
The first thing to say about this set is that Leon McCawley's playing could hardly be bettered: virtually every bar betrays a level of perception that would surely have warmed the composer's heart. Take the very first track on the first CD, the opening movement of Gál's Op 28 Piano Sonata of 1927, the numerous decorative harmonic digressions even within the first 30 seconds, the way McCawley ever so slightly stresses them but without disrupting the flow. Then try the Quasi menuetto second movement, a playful charmer stylistically placed somewhere between Prokofiev and Finzi. The early Suite, Op 22, is a genial sequence slightly reminiscent of Korngold (the Menuet) whereas the two post-war Sonatinas display more of a neo-classical leaning.
All this, plus the three early Sketches, three Pieces and three Preludes (the middle piece achingly beautiful), fill just the first disc.
But the best is yet to come: two CDs of Preludes and Fugues, the 24 preludes written mostly in hospital in 1960, one a day while recovering from illness; the fugues, serene and clear-headed, the work of an unusually lucid 90-year-old. Both sets progress from their initial key (B for the Preludes, C for the Fugues) and ascend chromatically, with the last piece cast a semitone lower than the first.
The Preludes are more akin to, say, Prokofiev's Visions fugitives than to Shostakovich's Preludes.
The fugues, on the other hand, are rather more ascetic, pared to essentials but often intensely expressive.
So, a surprise journey that should encourage many a return visit, especially in performances as consistently sympathetic as these. Excellent sound.”