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Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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A new review from critic Dan Morgan at MusicWeb. Read the whole thing here. 

A short sample follows

Just Released- Volume Three of the Complete Symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann

Just Released- Volume Three of the Complete Symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann

The Second Symphony opens with a most unsettling string theme that blossoms into a mellifluous, pulsing tune whose mood and manner might well suggest pared-down Bruckner. Structurally it’s more tightly drawn – no dancing mountains here – and in that sense Gál’s musical language tends to look backwards more than it does forward. That’s not a criticism, merely a marker, for it’s clear this music inhabits a strange, half-lit world between the warm Romanticism of the 19th century and the cooler climes of the 20th. That said, the gloaming is occasionally pierced with shafts of pure, unexpected loveliness.

This band plays with admirable finesse and concentration, and the recording is clean and well focused. Gál’s textures – often spare, but never emaciated – are alleviated somewhat by the greater amplitude and more rhythmically alert Allegro energico. At times there’s a hint of Mahler in dancerly mode, but what strikes one most forcibly is Gál’s propensity for periods of lucence and chamber-like intensity. It’s a persuasive mix, and there are no longueurs to speak of. As for that gorgeous Adagio, with its haunting cello line at the outset, it’s startling in its blend of radiance and gravitas. Eloquent playing, too.


1 year ago | |
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“It has always been known that the greatest pianoforte players were also the greatest composers; but how did they play? Not like the pianists of today who prance up and down the keyboard with passages in which they have exercised themselves—what does that mean? Nothing.”

Ludwig van Beethoven in conversation 1814

A perusal of Beethoven’s early works reveals a number of pieces crafted to make a big impression. Of all of these youthful “calling card” pieces, perhaps the Piano Concerto in C major is the most audacious. Although we know it as his Concerto no. 1, it was his third essay in the genre- an early concerto in D major, written when he was only 13, never made it into the canon. This was followed by the work we now know as the Concerto no. 2 in B flat in 1790, and then, about five years later, this Concerto in C major. Even in the context of Beethoven’s entire output, it is a bold and massive work. Depending on which cadenza the soloist chooses, it is possibly on an even grander scale than the Emperor Concerto. Beethoven chose to make his “Piano Concerto no. 1” such a bold statement with good reason- in the 1790s, he was far better known as a pianist than as a composer.

The work he put before the Viennese in 1795 as part of a concert organized by his teacher Josef Haydn (featuring three of his new “London” symphonies), would have been the longest concerto ever heard in the city. Audiences scanning their programmes that night would have expected the work to be extrovert in tone- the choice of C major as a key and the inclusion of trumpets and drums would have quickly drawn comparisons with Mozart’s late piano concerti in the same key, and the Jupiter Symphony. However, the work opens not with chest-thumping grandeur, but with a soft, cheeky march. Beethoven will make much use of the tension created by unexpectedly extended stretches of soft music throughout the movement. When the soloist enters for the first time, it is with a tune not yet heard, and one that we will not hear again, but it is in the development that Beethoven’s imagination truly takes flight- musicologist Michael Steinberg calls this “one of Beethoven’s most magical chapters.” After a couple of sudden harmonic lurches, the music breaks through into something like a dream state. The entire development unfolds in miraculous intimacy, never really rising above a whisper, full of dreamlike chords, only bursting forth at the recapitulation with the fortissimo we’d expected from the very beginning. Beethoven would have improvised his cadenza at the premiere, but about ten years later he wrote two cadenzas, taking advantage of the expanded range of his new piano. One of these is of normal scale, the other is enormous, and some critics have questioned whether such a big cadenza is somehow out of proportion to the work, a question only Beethoven could have answered definitively, and did.

The following Largo begins in the distant, dark key of A-flat major, opening with a slow version of the march rhythm that began the first movement underpinning the piano melody. As with so many of his later concerti, this middle movement is sublimely inward looking and spiritual. The final Rondo shows Beethoven at his wittiest and most mischievous- Haydn must have been pleased with it at that first concert. He would certainly have delighted in the way Beethoven takes a simple, cheeky theme and builds from it a movement full of outrageous harmonic twists and turns. At the very end, one senses the pianist running out of steam, slipping back into the dream world of the development of the first movement. Beethoven’s pupil Czerny advised conductors to then wait as long as they could stand it, again savouring the tension created by unexpectedly extended stretches of soft music, before unleashing the final mad fortissimo flourish.




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I attended my first Scotia Festival as a student in 1993- Peter Lieberson was the composer-of-the-year, Pierre-Laurent Aimard was the pianist-in-the-house. How could I not want to keep coming back? Over the following years I got to meet and work with composers like Oliver Knussen  and Joan Tower, instrumentalists like Marc-Andre Hamelin, and I got to share a stand with Desmond Hoebig and Fred Sherry. I also cut my conducting teeth there, and had all kinds of memorable chamber music experiences/ It broke my heart to realize I was getting too old to keep coming back as a student at some point.

I was last there as a guest artist in 2004. So, how excited am I to be heading back to an event that absolutely rightly calls itself the “greatest little chamber music festival in the world”? (FYI- the last piece I played at the festival was Turangalila- not exactly “little” or “chamber music.”)

Here’s my performance schedule for the two weeks. It should be an absolute blast- great repertoire, great colleagues. If you’re anywhere within about 1000 miles of Halifax, come and catch a concert or two. There are too many highlights to count for me- my first time to conduct anything by John Adams, a chance to do Berg’s monumentally challenging Chamber Concerto, a Britten anniversary celebratory performance of the Frank Bridge Variations and a chance to play some of Epomeo’s real party pieces. The complete Festival schedule is on their website. 

Highlight Concert 1
Monday, May 27, 2013 7:00 pm
Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre
Bach - Chaconne - Philippe Djokic, violin
Schnittke - String Trio - Ensemble Epomeo (Carolin Chin, violin, David Yang, viola, Kenneth Woods, cello)
Schubert - E flat major Piano Trio - John Novacek, piano, Mark Fewer, violin, Denise Djokic, cello

Recital 1 – Ensemble Epomeo
Tuesday, May 28, 2013 7:00 pm
Sir James Dunn Theatre, 6101 University Ave.
Ensemble Epomeo
Carolin Chin, violin, David Young, viola Ken Woods, cello
Krása – Tanec & Passacaglia and Fuga
Penderecki – String Trio
Kurtag – Signs, Games and Messages
Beethoven – String Trio in E-flat, Op. 3

Highlight Concert 3
Friday, May 31, 2013 7:00 pm
Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre
Britten - Cello Suite No. 3 - Denise Djokic, cello
Brady, Tim - World-premiere - Suzanne Lemieux, oboe, Tim Brady, electric guitar, Caroline Chin, violin, David Yang, viola, Kenneth Woods, cello, Simon Docking, piano
Tchaikovsky - Piano Trio - John Novacek, piano, Mark Fewer, violin, Denise Djokic, cello

Highlight Concert 4
Tuesday, June 4, 2013 7:00 pm
Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre
Berg - Concerto for Piano, Violin & 13 Winds - Scotia Winds, Robert Uchida,violin, Simon Docking, piano, Ken Woods, conductor
Mozart - Wind Serenade No. 10, K. 361, Gran Partita - Scotia Winds, Ken Woods, conductor

Highlight Concert 5
Wednesday, June 5, 2013 7:00 pm
Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre
Weinberg - String Trio - Ensemble Epomeo (Carolin Chin, violin, David Yang, viola, Kenneth Woods, cello)
Brahms  - Clarinet Trio, Op. 114 - Micah Heilbrunn, clarinet, Blair Lofgren, cello, Peter Allen, piano
Smetana - Piano Trio - John Novacek, piano, Mark  Fewer, violin, Denise Djokic, cello

Highlight Concert 6
Friday, June 7, 2013 7:00 pm
Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre
T. Brady – “We’re Hardcore”  - Kenneth Woods, conductor, Janice Jackson, soprano, Airi Yoshioka, violin, Caroline Chine, violin, David Yang, viola,  Blair Lofgren, cello, Max Kasper, bass
Kurt Weill – The Threepenny Opera – Scotia Winds, Kenneth Woods, conductor
Britten – Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10 – Scotia Festival Strings, Kenneth Woods, conductor

Sunday, June 9, 2013 2:00 pm
Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre
John Adams - Violin Concerto - Mark Fewer, violin
Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453 - John Novacek, piano
Shostakovich - Cello Concerto - Denise Djokic, cello


1 year ago | |
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A review appeared in Tempo Magazine from January 2013 of the Orchestra of the Swan’s “Trumpet Shall Sound” concert. A short excerpt follows

Composer John McCabe

Composer John McCabe

Although John McCabe’s Rainforest II, of 1987, is in effect a chamber concerto for trumpet and 11 strings, his extensive body of concertante works has lacked an official trumpet concerto. La Primavera, which had its première on 15 June 2012, now happily fills that gap. The subtitle derives from McCabe’s consideration of two aspects of the approach of Spring: the vitality of burgeoning growth and the flowering of the new or refreshed life as it expands.

Completed in 2012, McCabe’s concerto is conceived on a small scale, requiring an accompanying orchestra consisting of one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and tenor trombone, together with a modest array of percussion – for one player – and strings. Two unconventional aspects of the score must be mentioned. First, in the work’s central Andante the soloist uses a flugelhorn, an instrument of melancholy radiance with resonances of Miles Davies and Vaughan Williams’s symphonic swansong; McCabe exploits both of these elements persuasively to stirring effect in his slow movement. The second  unusual element concerns the percussion, which, due to its obbligato-like character, is required to be placed at the front of the platform near the trumpet soloist.

Formally, the work is traditional, with three clearly defined sections or movements in the pattern of fast–slow–fast. Quicksilver and quixotic, the opening Allegro switches between moods of buoyant  festivity and chamber-like delicacy. Droll references to the Rite of Spring add to the music’s zestful good humour, though it is typical of McCabe’s fastidiousness that these Stravinsky ‘quotations’ are not merely inserted randomly into the score but rather constitute a logical development  of the ascending and descending woodwind figures heard in the concerto’s opening bars…

Following without a break, the slow movement begins in a state of near-suspension, an effect achieved by layers of sustained and muted strings, before an intricate theme rises eventually from the lower  strings, ultimately forming a full string texture. The jazz-like nature of this central episode is emphasised by subtle use of double-bass pizzicato and openly lyrical writing for the soloist. After a brief ‘quasi cadenza’ for solo trumpet and bongos, the swift finale is infectiously rhythmic, mirroring the first movement’s accumulation through the contiguity of various overlapping strands…In the concerto’s closing moments, the combined orchestral forces punch out a forceful, heavily accented unison before the textures rapidly etiolate, leaving the trumpet solo with the last word.

Commissioned by the Orchestra of the Swan and dedicated to trumpet soloist Simon Desbruslais, La Primavera was expertly rendered by these musicians under the authoritative direction of Kenneth Woods. A  special tribute must be paid to the key contribution of the orchestra’s percussionist, spotlighted by this exacting score almost as much as Desbruslais; their extensive interplay was a crucial element in the concerto’s winning composite of conviviality and intimacy.

Earlier in the first half of the concert at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Civic Hall, another new piece received its world première – Deborah Pritchard’s Skyspace for solo piccolo trumpet and string orchestra, inspired by the installations of artist James Turrell. Divided into seven vivid miniatures, this finely wrought piece extracted a strikingly rich and diverse range of colours from its circumscribed resources, thanks in part to an imaginative use of divided strings, notably in sumptuous chordal passages….

Also on the orchestra’s exceptionally enterprising programme, which included Michael Tippett’s Little Music for Strings and Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’, was a rare and welcome opportunity to hear Robert Saxton’s piece for solo trumpet and small orchestra Psalm – A Song of Ascents, written in 1992 and given its première by John Wallace and the London Sinfonietta the following year. This poetic work was influenced by diverse biblical references to the trumpet, ranging from ceremonial fanfares to the instrument’s seraphic associations. The diversity of character suggested by these allusions is reflected in Saxton’s textless psalm, which ranges widely in mood from the bell-tinted introspective beginning, launched by a unison E, to the joyously rhythmic third and final section via a song-like allegro moderato central episode. Generating waves of pulsating energy, the score increases gradually in tempo until a resounding climax is reached, followed by a radiant, sustained A major coda ending in a state of repose. It was gratifying to be given a chance to experience this challenging work in a reading of such heroic panache and fierce dedication: soloist, players and conductor valiantly negotiated the score’s fiendish polyrhythms and labyrinthine tempo associations, whilst building a convincing case for it to be regarded as one of Saxton’s finest utterances.

To sum up, this event was memorable for the quality of its performances and the boldness of its scheduling in equal measure. It is a pleasure to be able to report that the featured McCabe, Pritchard and Saxton works have been recorded by the same artists for future release on the Signum Classics label.

Paul Conway

1 year ago | |
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Kenneth Woods, Principal Guest Conductor of Stratford-upon-Avon based Orchestra of the Swan, has made international headlines for his ongoing cycle of world-premiere recordings of the Symphonies of Hans Gál, paired with those of Robert Schumann on the AVIE label. This month brings the third of the four-disc series with  Gáls Second and Schumann’s Fourth (AV 2232).

Gál’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1942-43 during the darkest war years, is perhaps the most personal of the composer’s four symphonies. With an emotional depth and haunting beauty, the symphony distils the process of overcoming pain and loss into the language of pure music. Composed a century earlier, Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 is arguably his most popular symphony. ”These are both seeking, questing symphonies,” says Woods. “The Schumann seeks light and life as an escape from the D minor anguish and ferocity from which it emerges, and the Gál seeks consolation and comfort in the midst of personal and historical tragedy.”

The two works share some notable structural similarities. “Gál himself called Schumann’s Fourth his “most radical experiment in form,” Woods explains, “in which not only are all the movements thematically connected, they also are structurally interdependent. One can see in his Second Symphony that Gál had studied Schumann’s example carefully.”

Woods has earned international distinction for his Gál – Schumann series, with Gramophone magazine recognising him as a “symphonic conductor of some stature”, a “front rank conductor”. The set has been featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Performance Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and awarded an Editor’s Choice by Gramophone.

This season has found Kenneth Woods’ multifaceted career going from strength to strength. This spring he was appointed Artistic Director of the English Symphony Orchestra, for which he is curating a newly created subscription concert series in Christ Church, Malvern. As a cellist of some distinction, last autumn’s release with his string trio Ensemble Epomeo ofworks by Gál and Krasa, was a Gramophone magazine Critic’s Choice. His concerto appearances this season include the Brahms Double in Guildford, Walton in Wrexham, and Haydn’s C Major with Orchestra Nova in Manchester. A widely-read and respected journalist and blogger, he has contributed liner notes to a number of releases including EMI’s ICON reissue, a 20-CD box set devoted to German conductor Eugen Jochum, and has guest-blogged for Gramophone magazine. His own blog, A View from the Podium, is one of today’s 20 top classical music blogs. As a broadcaster, Woods will be heard this summer commentating for the BBC Proms. As an arranger, Woods’ orchestral version of Ullman’s String Quartet No. 3 has been recorded by David Parry and the English Chamber Orchestra for the Gramola label.

Gál’s Symphony No. 2 and Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 will be available in stores, online, as a digital download and to stream from 9 April in the US, and 22 April in the UK.

To learn more about Kenneth Woods visit

All media enquiries, interview and image requests: Melanne Mueller,,

+1 917 907 2785 or +44 (0) 20 8542 4866

artist: Kenneth Woods, Orchestra of the Swan

title: Hans Gál Symphony No. 2, Schumann Symphony No. 4

price: Full price

release date: 9 April 2013 (US), 22 April 2013 (UK)

selection number: AV 2232


Hans Gál (1890 – 1987)

Symphony No. 2 in F, Op. 53

I.   1 Introduction: Andante – Adagio  (7:44)

II.  2 Allegro energico – molto moderato (8:21)

III. 3 Adagio (15:21)

IV. 4 Allegro moderato ma agitato (13:26)

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 12

I.   1 Ziemlich langsam – Lebhaft (10:06)

II.  2 Romanze: Ziemlich langsam (3:26)

III. 3 Scherzo: Lebhaft (6:46)

IV. 4 Langsam; Lebhaft (7:25)

Total time: 73:11

Recorded December 2012, Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, England

Producer: Simon Fox-Gál

* * * * *

 also available

Hans Gál Symphony No. 3 *

Schumann Symphony No. 3

AV 2230

Hans Gál Symphony No. 4 *
Schumann Symphony No. 2

AV 2231

* world premiere recordings

All media inquiries, image and interview requests please contact Melanne Mueller,, +44 (0) 20 8542 4866 or +1 917 907 2785


PHONE: +1 917 907 2785 / +44 (0) 20 8542 4866 FAX: +1 917 677 8795 / +44 (0) 20 8542 4854

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1 year ago | |
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A new review from American Record Guide for “Spring Sounds, Spring Seas.”


Spring Sounds, Spring Seas 

James Nyoraku Schlefer (1956-).

? Haru No Umi Redux, for shakuhachi, koto & ensemble

(2011) [10:26]

? Shakuhachi Concerto (2009) [26:03]

Daron Hagen (1961-).

? *Genji, for koto, winds, strings and marimba (2011) [27:53]

James Nyoraku Schlefer (shakuhachi). Yumi Kurosawa (20-string koto). Orchestra of the Swan c/b Kenneth Woods / *David Curtis. 

Recorded: Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 28 May 2011.

This seductive album presents three recent works that fuse Asian and Western musical traditions, a popular trend. James Nyoraku Schlefer’s Haru No Umi Redux is a skillful reworking of a seminal piece from 1929 that was largely responsible for the incursion of Western gestures into Japanese music. It is an enchanting piece of exceptional delicacy, as is Schlefer’s 2009 Shakuhachi Concerto, which blends the otherworldly sound of the shakuhachi with harp and strings. The concerto has dissonant moments and plenty of rhythmic punch, but its basic mood is hazy and tranquil. The composer is a Grand Master of the shakuhachi, one of only a few Westerners to achieve this rank. His skill is illustrated especially in the cadenza that opens the impressionist II.

More overtly sensuous is David Hagen’s 2011 Koto Concerto: Genji, an “opera without words” based on an 11th Century narrative. It consists of five psychological portraits. The second, ‘Falling Flowers’, has a poignant violin solo; III, ‘Maiden on the Bridge’, demonstrates the subtlety of koto soloist Yumi Kurosawa, who makes her ancient instrument sound like a small orchestra. The bent sounds, rich chords, and strumming on various parts of the instrument produce marvelous colors.

The Orchestra of the Swan, a British chamber orchestra, plays with expressive understatement. The warm recording, at a concert, has all the qualities of a studio production. East-West fusions seem immune to the struggles of the classical music scene. This engaging album shows why.


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This is a slightly expanded version of an essay on Brahms’s last symphony commissioned by The Bridgewater Hall for last week’s Budapest Festival Orchestra concert.

“But in dark, dramatic outbursts such as those in the first and last movements of his Fourth Symphony, something apocalyptically grandiose and superhuman takes place. He had outgrown the passionately romantic extravagance of subjectivity; free from illusions, he could now face the world from the remote viewpoint of a stoic, without illusions and without self-pity.”

Hans Gál- Johannes Brahms, His Work and Personality


One might be tempted to call the tragic symphony the white tiger of musical genres. Of all musical species, it is one of the most fascinating and powerful, yet sightings are rare. Between the two greatest specimens, Mozart’s 40th and Mahler’s 6th, one finds precious few examples. Beethoven never wrote one, and neither did Schumann, Bruckner, Dvorak or Schubert. If the 19th c was the golden age of the symphony, the lone great tragic essay in the genre was Brahms’s Fourth.

Brahms tended to create works in sharply contrasting pairs- as if the second work, almost always diametrically opposed in mood, might act as philosophical counterargument to the first. This tendency is already apparent in his first two opus numbers, the Piano Sonatas in C major and F-sharp minor. In that case, as in the later pairing of the Academic Festival Overture with the Tragic Overture, the second work feels like a negation of the exuberance of the first. This was not always the case- the Second Piano Quartet in A major feels like a well-earned vacation in a sunny climate after its stormy predecessor in G minor. In the case of his opus 51 String Quartets, both are in minor keys, but the first is Beethovenian and extrovert, the second more intimate and full of reminiscences of his intimate circle of friends, including the Schumann’s and Joachim.

Thus is was that after the seventeen year gestation that preceded his First Symphony, a most Beethovenian work of taut arguments and heroic struggle, in 1876, its antipode, the lyrical and pastoral Second came only months later. And yet these two works are made of much the same musical DNA- the neighbour-tone gesture which forms the main motive of the Finale of the First becomes the first three notes of the first and last movements of the Second.

Brahms knew that his First Symphony would be compared with those of Beethoven- it was quickly nicknamed “The Tenth” and commentators were keen to point out the similarities between the big tune in Brahms’s finale and the Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth. “Any idiot can spot that!” was Brahms’s impatient retort. Later commentators have noted that Brahms’ First Symphony can be seen as both an homage to and a critique of Beethoven’s Ninth. Yes, the parallels are obvious, but it was no accident that Brahms did not include Beethoven’s janizary band and chorus, and even less of an accident that Brahms ended his symphony not with the “big tune,” as Beethoven did, but with that that tight little three-note motivic cell. Beethoven’s last symphony ends with an apotheosis of ecstatic song, Brahms First ends with a reassertion of Classical rigour and symphonic logic.

In many genres, Brahms’ was content to let a pair stand- thus we have two sextets and two overtures. In other cases, Brahms returned later to the genre with a mediating third work, as with the piano sonatas, the string quartets and the piano quartets. In each case, this third work seems to bridge some of the differences and settle the philosophical argument between the first two pieces.

(Big, bad, Bernie Haitink brings it to Brahms 4 with the COE)

And so it looked to be in the case of the symphony when Brahms composed his Third Symphony five years later in 1882. The connections with the two earlier symphonies are profound- the Finale in particular is a working out of the same neighbour tone motive that had been so central to the two previous symphonies. And, as expected, it seems to embrace both the storminess and tautness of the First (particularly in the outer movements) and the lyricism of the Second (the two inner movements and the coda of the Finale). Even the mode of the Third seems to be straddling the worlds of the first two symphonies- it is a major key symphony that spends a huge amount of time in the minor.  The last page of the Third seems to offer a sense of reconciliation and resolution. That he chose this piece to incorporate his musical motto, “Frei aber froh” (“free but happy”) makes its peaceful and reflective ending seem all the more touching. Life, he seems to be saying, is a struggle, like the First Symphony, but one can eventually find one’s way to the peace of the Second.

So, is it a surprise that in the case of the symphony, the peace did not hold? Once again, Brahms felt compelled to counter his own argument, to question what he’d just said. Less than a year after the premiere of the Third, he was hard at work on its antipode. On the surface, the Fourth seems the most Beethovenian Brahms symphony since the First, and yet Brahms was making a statement, devastating in its finality, that marked a complete departure from Beethoven’s absolute insistence that the answer to the fundamental symphonic question must always be “yes.”

Brahms wrote the bulk of the Fourth in the summer of 1884 in Mürzzuschlag. “The cherries don’t ever get to be sweet and edible in this part of the world,” he said, adding that something of their bitter flavour was to be found in his new symphony. When Brahms unveiled the work, some of his supporters found it “difficult,” and not only because of the tragic ending. Hanslick said listening to the first movement played through by two pianists was like “being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.” However, its premiere by the Meiningen Orchestra under the direction of Hans von Bülow was a triumph, and it soon became one of the central works of the symphonic repertoire.

The Fourth was a summation of Brahms’s work as a symphonist, in which his obsessions with unity, clarity, balance and proportion all found their culmination. Brahms’s favourite interval was the third, and in the Fourth he uses it as both a melodic and tonal building block- key relationships are, as so often in his music, expressed in thirds, but also the entire melody which opens the first movement is built on a chain of thirds. For much of the 20th c, conductors of Brahms’s music favoured sonority over all else, which has often left his rhythmic innovations overlooked. In the case of the Fourth, that is a great pity- Brahms’s is taking the rhythmic possibilities of the Romantic-era musical language to an extreme of sophistication and complexity that is perhaps unique. One passage in the first movement is so rhythmically multi-layered that composer Gunther Schuller says of it that “there is nothing like it even in the Rite of Spring.”

The Passage

The Passage

The first movement of Brahms’s previous minor-key symphony, the First, had already hinted at a light at the end of the tunnel, ending quietly and in the major. Not so in the Fourth, whose first movement concludes in full Sturm und Drang intensity. What follows is a masterstroke. He moves via a short C major introduction (very much a third away) from E minor to the E major denied us in the Allegro for a slow movement  of breathtaking beauty and serenity. The last cadence brings the movement full circle- we arrive at the E major chord not from the dominant, but from the C major with which the movement began.

This final cadence is no mere harmonic felicity, but a gesture of profound structural importance as it not only creates a link with the end of the first movement, but with the Scherzo in C major which is to follow.  This movement represents an explosion of vitality and life force unmatched in Brahms’s symphonic music (the only orchestral music of similar brilliance and exuberance is the Academic Festival Overture, which shares both the key of C major and Brahms’s use of triangle). All of Brahms’ previous symphonic third movements had been intermezzi of one kind or another, understated and intimate. This one sounds like the triumphant end of a symphony. When the work was premiered, Brahms and von Bülow risked the wrath of an otherwise ecstatic audience by refusing to encore it.

If the Fourth is a summation of everything Brahms was as a symphonist, this is most apparent in the Finale- the most original, perfect and powerful movement he ever wrote. Brahms had a love and understanding of Baroque forms unlike any other 19th century composer, surpassing even Mendelssohn’s depth of knowledge. For years, Brahms would wait eagerly for the newest volume of the Bach Gesellschaft to arrive in the post, and take it immediately to the piano to devour and internalize each of the Master’s works as they came back into print. His penchant for the Passacaglia as a form had already borne fruit in the last of the Haydn Variations- the crowning achievement of his first mature orchestral work. Now he returned to this ancient form, a perpetually evolving series of variations over a repeated bass, as the crowning glory of his life’s work.

His passacaglia theme is adapted from Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150 (“For Thee, O Lord, I long”). Brahms immediately establishes that we are in a totally different world of emotion from the Allegro giocoso- back in E minor, and an atmosphere bitter as those Mürzzuschlag cherries.  These last two movements themselves form a perfect Brahmsian antipodal pair, the unmatched triumph of the Scherzo swept aside by the high tragedy of the Finale.

Is it a step to far to compare the two pairs of pairs of Brahms symphonies? In the pair of symphonies from the 1870s, the First begins with Beethovenian struggle, breaks through into triumph then is followed by the autumnal serenity of the Second, which feels like a great reward for the hardships overcome in the First.

And yet his second pair of symphonies, from the 1880’s, seems to offer a negation of both their predecessors. The Third is full of struggle but ends in poignant acceptance, but acceptance of what? Seen in the light of the Fourth, the ending of the Third seems less like “reconciliation and resolution” and more like resignation. The presence of his motto on the last page of the Third hints that it is acceptance of himself and his destiny. But one also senses that he felt that the Fourth was his destiny- the piece he was meant to write. Although he’d stayed absolutely faithful to certain elements of Beethoven’s aesthetic, Brahms’s symphonic journey ends not with the Heaven-storming exultation of the giant whose footsteps he had always heard behind him, but with terrifying finality. It’s probably not an accident that the passage most similar in character to the last page of Brahms’ last symphony was the first page of his First. As always with Brahms, the end was in the beginning.

c 2013 Kenneth Woods


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From the November/December issue of American Record Guide

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“Ensemble Epomeo play with finesse and sensitivity, nicely capturing Krasa’s manic grotesqueries as well as Gal’s elegance and tenderness.”


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A new review of our debut CD from critic Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Kosman describes the Gal Serenade as “a witty, sardonic and often beautiful score, which adopts the mannerisms of the Classical style while simultaneously sending them up with love and zest,” and hails Gal’s opus 104 for “Gál’s undeniable mastery of resources.” Most enthusiastic of all, is Kosman’s endorsement of Krasa’s Passacaglia and Fugue, which ends the CD: “Krása’s Passacaglia and Fugue is a brilliant revelation, a savage takedown of artistic ideals in which order and luxuriance devolve into chaos. It’s a compact, unforgettable masterpiece, and the Ensemble Epomeo – which includes Woods along with violinist Caroline Chin and violist David Yang - gives it a superb performance.”

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A new review of the Complete String Trios of Hans Gal and Hans Krasa from Fanfare Magazine

GÁL Serenade in D, op. 41. Trio in fT, op. 104. KRÁSA Tanec (Dance). Passacaglia and Fugue ? Ens Epomeo ? AVIE 2259 (67:08)

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Epomeo Play Krasa and Gal

Hans Gál has been receiving some well-deserved, if belated, attention on disc lately. Just a couple of issues back, I reviewed a must-have recording by cellist Antonio Meneses performing Gál’s very beautiful cello concerto. And now, here on the present release, we have what is advertised as the complete string trios of both Gál and his close contemporary, Hans Krása. Though born only nine years apart— Gál in 1890 and Krása in 1899— Gál was fortunate to escape the advancing Nazi forces into Austria, fleeing to the U.K. in 1938 and eventually settling in Edinburg, where he died in 1987.

Krása was not so lucky. He was deported first to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and then transferred to Auschwitz where he was killed in 1944. Given Krása’s much shorter life, it’s understandable that his output is considerably less than Gáls’s. Neither composer, however, apparently devoted much effort to the string trio, since the contents of this CD are said to be the extent of it.

The two Gál works are recorded here for the first time, and, in terms of scale, they’re both major additions to the literature, each lasting over 25 minutes. Written in 1932, before the serious trouble began, the Serenade lives up to its title, in name, if not strictly in form. The piece is in four movements in what I would describe as a nod to the Baroque and Classical periods as reflected through the lens of an easygoing, listener-friendly modernist style that teases and tickles the ear with fractured and fragmented references to familiar pieces. Throughout the first movement (Capriccioso), for example, you’ll hear the distinctive three-note pattern that permeates the first movement of Bach’s G-Major Brandenburg Concerto.

While I wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far, I’d say that to a degree Gál’s Serenade reminds me of some of Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik pieces. Gál’s score is mostly busy, breezy, and boffo, perhaps more in the manner of a divertimento than a serenade.

Just as long, but in only three movements this time, the Trio in FT Minor is a much later work, dating from 1971, after the trouble was over. The piece was commissioned by the London Viola d’amore Society and originally scored for violin, viola d’amore, and cello, but Gál made this version for traditional string trio at the same time. The mood is now introspective, brooding, and perhaps a bit bereft. If there’s an analogue here, I’d have to say that the Trio seems to look back to the highly chromatic, freely tonal style familiar to us from works of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Viennese composers before they succumbed to the siren of dodecaphonism. In other words, Gál’s Trio is a nostalgic soak in a muddy pond. But mud baths are supposed to be therapeutic, and this one left me with a nice, warm glow.

The Krása pieces are considerably shorter—six minutes for Tanec and just under 10 minutes for the Passacaglia and Fugue. Tanec, or Dance, was composed in the last year of Krása’s life. With its strong rhythmic thrust, ostinato figure in the cello, and Hungarian folk flavor, the music is at first suggestive of Bartók, but as Kenneth Woods’s note indicates, the piece is meant to be evocative of trains, with the obvious reference to the boxcars that transported Krása and the millions of others to the death camps. To quote Woods, “the atmosphere ranges from eerie nostalgia, to barely contained menace, to explicit violence,” and ends in a series of manic shrieks.

Written later that same year (1944), the Passacaglia and Fugue is Krása’s last completed work. It’s difficult to describe this music of broken spirit and soul. Initially, Shostakovich comes to mind in a frozen soundscape benumbed by cruel and forbidding cold. But slowly, the music rises to a pitch of bickering and physical altercation.

The recording at hand represents the Ensemble Epomeo’s disc debut. Named for the Mediterranean volcano, Mt. Epomeo, the group was founded when the three players—Caroline Chin, violin; David Yang, viola; and Kenneth Woods, cello—came together at the Festivale di Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy on 2008. It’s always difficult to judge an ensemble in unfamiliar repertoire, but I think I can say that the Epomeo’s musicians are more than up to the technical task of their business and that they sound intensely engaged in the emotional worlds of these two composers and their music. I would now look forward to hearing the ensemble in something more familiar, like Mozart’s great Divertimento in EI Major, K 563, or the Beethoven string trios. Meanwhile, this new, excellent recording is strongly recommended.

Jerry Dubins


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