Ensemble Epomeo

String Trio


Explore the Score- Hans Gal, Serenade for String Trio, opus 41

Here is a sneak peak at the liner notes for Ensemble Epomeo’s new recording of the complete string trios by Hans Krasa, murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis, and Hans Gal, forced into exile during WW II, after which his music fell into near complete obscurity.

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“Chamber music, as the most intimate form of expression, is the realm to which the musician repeatedly returns in order to retain the link with the essence of things. In a duo, trio or quartet, independent individuals converse with one another. The musical symbol for this process is polyphony: the most perfect and most transparent form of polyphony is three voices; for that reason I have always had a special liking for the trio as the noblest medium for polyphony.”


Hans Gál, 1948


Serenade for Violin, Viola and Cello, opus 41

Gal’s Serenade for violin, viola and violoncello, Op.41 was composed in 1932, when the composer was at the peak of his pre-War career as director of the Conservatory in Mainz, and was premiered in December that year by the Weyns String Trio in Manheim. Less than four months later, Hitler ascended to power and Gál went from being one of the most celebrated composers of his generation and director of one the nation’s leading musical institutions to persona non grata– a man without a position whose music was banned from performance and publication.

Gál was highly conscious of the power of genre as an organizing, contextualizing and liberating force, and so the description of this trio as a Serenade is telling. As it happens, Beethoven’s first two string trios were also Serenades, as was Dohnanyi’s. As so often with Gál, his relationship to the genre is both respectful and subversive- just as one would expect, the overall character is playful, effervescent and carefree, as highlighted by the titles Gál gave to the four movements: Capriccioso, Cantabilie, Menuetto, and Alla Marcia. On the other hand, it is a work of jaw-dropping virtuosity and extreme contrapuntal intricacy, brimming over with Gál’s usual harmonic sophistication and seriousness of purpose.

The opening Capriccioso is capricious music indeed: demanding great agility, and full of lightning fast changes of mood. Gál chooses to begin this most contrapuntally intricate of movements with a Haydnesque bit of musical misdirection- a unison passage for the three players lasts just long enough for the ensuing contrapuntal fireworks to come as a surprise.

The following Cantabile is truly music that lives in the world of song. Gál moves from the work’s bright home key of D major to the darker realm of B-flat, opening with a long-breathed and fluid melody, first heard in the solo violin over gently pulsating crotchets, one of Gál’s favourite musical textures. In the slightly faster middle section Gál moves into darker, more oblique and rarified harmonic regions, before the opening theme remerges in the viola over a lush re-harmonization

The following Menuetto is very much a nod to Haydn and Mozart, written in a slightly deliberate but elegant tempo. As so often in Haydn, the music’s courtly charm belies the significant contrapuntal and harmonic intricacy. The lovely trio section offers up not just a deliciously expansive and romantic melody in the cello’s most singing register, but also an answer in exact canon from the violin, floating an octave above, and the entire trio continues this way,  balancing lyrical expressivity and strictly observed intellectual rigour.

The final Alla marcia brings us back to the virtuosity of the opening movement. The jocular opening march theme makes way for a lyrical middle section that again highlights Gál’s peerless gifts as a melodist. The work’s coda takes the contrapuntal fireworks to new extremes before Gál pulls the players together with one final virtuoso unison run, to bring the entire Serenade full circle, from unison to unison.


A spring cleaning for the Goldberg Variations

Last month, my colleagues in Ensemble Epomeo and I had a chance to dust off our scores to Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s wonderful string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Coming back to this most special of pieces was as inspiring, rewarding and humbling as ever, and I’ve been meaning to share a few thoughts about it since then.

We toured with the piece in 2009, and played it many times. Happily, the feedback we got was extremely positive, but I don’t think we ever quite felt satisfied. Generally speaking, the older the music, the less is notated in terms of how one should play it, and the more the performance depends on a sense of style and intuition, and in trying to accommodate each other’s ideas, I felt like we’d ended up with a performance that didn’t express a single point of view with enough clarity of purpose.  I found our reading a bit “neither fish nor fowl.” This time, with much more time together as a group under our belts, we all felt more emboldened to stick to our guns. The upshot was probably quite a few more spirited discussions, but a more interesting performance.

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