KABELAC: Symphonies Nos. 1-8

KABELÁČ  Symphonies Nos. 1-8 —  Marko Ivanović, cond; Prague RSO  —  SUPRAPHON SU 4202-2 (4 CDs: 3:58:23)

Miloslav Kabeláč (1908-1979) is generally recognized within the Czech Republic as their most important composer from the generation following Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). However, his reputation seems barely to have extended beyond his homeland. There are a number of reasons for this, rooted in the political shifts that occurred during the years of his maturity. Kabeláč’s main composition teacher was Karel Boleslav Jirák, with whom he studied at the Prague Conservatory, graduating in 1931. In addition to composing, Kabeláč served as music director of the Prague Radio, and as the chief conductor of their orchestra. His mature compositions began to appear during the late 1930s, shortly before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. The following year they had established control of the country, and instituted their anti-Semitic policies. Kabeláč had married a Jewish woman, whom the Nazis demanded that he divorce. He refused, whereupon he was relieved of his position with the Prague Radio, while facing a complete boycott of performances of his music. Upon the War’s end in 1945 Kabeláč enjoyed a brief period of freedom, but in 1948 Czechoslovakia was seized again, this time by the Soviet Union, which attempted to impose its own notions of artistic expression. Kabeláč was not about to accept the imposition of ideologically derived aesthetic principles, but he managed to continue composing as he wished, though his works did not win the favor of the prevailing government, which regarded him with suspicion. But his music did attract the attention of the Czech musical community—especially the portion that was concerned with new music. During the period from the late 1950s until 1968 there was some relaxation of Soviet artistic dogmas; Kabeláč enjoyed a modicum of freedom, teaching at the Prague Conservatory, while continuing to compose. It was during this time that his music won a wider degree of recognition, with more frequent performances and recordings of some of his major works by such eminent figures as the conductor Karel Ančerl, who became a vigorous champion. But in 1968 the Soviets invaded Prague and replaced the relatively liberal policies of Alexander Dubček with a more repressive regime. From this time until his death in 1979, Kabeláč once again faced the complete suppression of his identity as a composer. His recordings were taken out of circulation, as were the scores to his works, and performances disappeared almost completely. Perhaps the highpoint of his international career occurred in 1971: Two French musicians—conductor Pierre Stoll and musicologist Paul Nardin—had become extremely interested in the music of Kabeláč; they arranged for a concert in Strasbourg that would be devoted entirely to his works, of which the centerpiece would be the premiere of the newly-commissioned Symphony No. 8, “Antiphons.” The concert took place on June 15, 1971, but the Czech government refused to grant Kabeláč permission to attend.

In view of the foregoing, this new release, featuring recordings of all eight Kabeláč symphonies, in brilliant, sensitive performances by the Prague Radio Orchestra under the direction of Marko Ivanović, is most welcome. For most listeners it will be an initial exposure to a representative sample of the works of one of 20th-century Europe’s most significant composers.

Kabeláč’s music is no walk in the park. It is all serious stuff—grim, bleak, and brooding, often breaking out into a relentless physical brutality. There is no levity. While listening to this music, it is hard not to be constantly reminded of the overwhelming adversities, both personal and political, that he endured throughout his career, although regarding his work as nothing but a statement of political resistance or protest is simplistic, to say the least. His eight symphonies (1941-1970) serve as a representative longitudinal survey of his work, illustrating the considerable evolution of his compositional voice over the course of that period, as well as the expressive elements that remained consistent throughout his career. One remarkable feature of his symphonic canon is the fact that each work is scored for a different array of performing forces. Perhaps the most prominent and consistent musical elements of his style are his frequent use of small melodic intervals, and emphatic, unwavering rhythmic patterns that evoke a sense of militant determination. There is also a constant emphasis on tonic minor triads or chords built upon minor triads (this became less obvious in the later works). At times this emphasis on the tonic is hammered to the point of an almost masochistic numbness. Initially, these minor triads appeared in a clearly tonal context, although as he matured they were treated with greater chromatic freedom. Unrelated minor triads often pivot via common tones. Much of the music is slow in tempo, although contrasting fast movements typically utilize triplet subdivisions.

A good deal of grim orchestral music emanated from Eastern Europe during the middle years of the 20th century. Much of it is gray and faceless. In contrast, Kabeláč had something very strong and powerful to say; his works are statements of great metaphysical and existential import. I believe that he stands among the greatest composers of his time and place.

Kabeláč’s Symphony No. 1 was composed during World War II, in 1941. In one sense it is a work very much of its time. It is scored for an orchestra of only strings and percussion—a scoring that calls to mind the Double Concerto (1938) for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani of Bohuslav Martinů. But more than this work, the symphony resembles other, roughly contemporaneous music by composers like Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger—a sort of freely chromatic neo-classicism to which many European composers of the time were drawn, with a more complex and dissonant harmonic language than is found in many of Kabeláč’s later works. Yet despite its affinity with general musical currents of the time, many of the elements noted above as consistent stylistic features of the composer can be found in embryonic form in this work. It is a large, serious statement—stern yet consistently compelling, with an unremitting sense of suppressed intensity that builds to tremendous epiphanies of anguish, although it finally achieves an affirmative conclusion. The work must be regarded among the great European symphonies of the World War II period.

The Symphony No. 2 was also begun during the War, but it was largely completed after the War’s end, in 1946. This is probably the symphony of Kabeláč that is most accessible to a general audience—a long (nearly 40-minute) post-romantic statement not likely to alienate anyone comfortable with, say, Shostakovich’s contemporaneous Eighth Symphony. In fact, if there is one composer who might be cited as a somewhat kindred figure, it is probably Shostakovich, though the latter was far more prolific and broader in his range of expression, while Kabeláč’s music is more concentrated in form and structure. (Kabeláč—like the American Peter Mennin—was one of those composers whose entire output is dedicated to a particular expressive attitude that remains constant throughout, although their means of articulating that attitude may have evolved significantly.) Actual audible similarities to the music of Shostakovich are few, but it is in this work that they are likely to be noticed. Yet despite such moments, those listeners who have gained some familiarity with the music of Kabeláč will find his characteristic features far more salient than occasional reminiscences of others.

Like much of Kabeláč’s music, the work begins with a bold assertion of force that rarely subsides. The second movement features the alto saxophone in a prominent role, suggesting the voice of vulnerable humanity attempting to be heard amid the clamor of a ruthlessly inhumane machine. The third movement is perhaps the most impressive of all—utterly uncompromising in its expressive intensity. No. 2 is a work of overwhelming power, and again warrants recognition among the most extraordinarily eloquent symphonic statements to emerge from Europe during the 1940s.

I have often observed that many—perhaps most—composers have a “sweet spot”—a period when their musical language has achieved its greatest clarity, and when they produced their most representative and fully realized compositions. For Kabeláč this period was the 1950s, when he produced most of his greatest works, one after another. One of these is a symphonic passacaglia with the intriguing title, The Mystery of Time. Possibly because of its title, possibly because of its striking musical quality, this has become the composer’s most celebrated work, although there has not been a recording since Ančerl’s monaural account from around 1960. (More about this later.)

The Symphony No. 3 dates from this period, occupying Kabeláč from 1948 until 1957. The symphony is scored for brass, organ, and timpani, and represents a stark distillation of Kabeláč’s compositional style. During this time most of the musical elements and devices that linked him with contemporaneous compositional currents have been shed, leaving only the most idiosyncratic elements of his creative personality. This work, shorter in duration than its two predecessors despite comprising four movements instead of their respective three, is largely funereal in tone, from its intensely ominous opening until a stark, concluding brass chorale that suggests a sense of unyielding oppression. The language is quite a bit simpler than that found in the two earlier symphonies: There is relatively little harmonic dissonance and less textural complexity, while the obsessive focus on the tonic comes to the fore. During the period when Kabeláč was composing this symphony he also wrote two Fantasias for organ—among his finest works—and some of their material found its way into this symphony. It is one of his most characteristic works; while some listeners may find its militant obstinacy unyielding, relentless, and somewhat crude, others will be impressed by its indomitable power and sense of violent rage, suppressed under great duress. During the late 1980s Supraphon released a recording of this work (SU 0035-2 031), featuring members of the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Libor Pešek. That was a superb recorded performance that is no less stunning than the one heard here.

The Symphony No. 4 is subtitled, “Camerata,” and is scored for chamber orchestra. It is apparently the composer’s most frequently performed symphony, most likely because of the smaller forces required. Completed in 1958, it is lighter in texture and spirit than any of the preceding symphonies, and follows the format of a sonata da chiesa. Still tenaciously tonal, it serves as the “neo-classical” entry in Kabeláč’s symphonic canon, with even some hints of Martinů-like exuberance. But these words are all relative, as is immediately apparent from the funereal opening movement. The second movement, however, is possibly one of the composer’s most cheerful creations, although the martial spirit never disappears completely. It is one of Kabeláč’s fast movements with triplet subdivisions. The slow movement is eerie and ominous, while the finale resembles the second movement somewhat, maintaining a more “objective” tone than the composer’s norm. In 1960 Supraphon released a recording (SU 3020-2 911) that featured the conductorless Prague Chamber Orchestra. That performance served its purpose, although it is far outclassed by this new recording from the perspectives of both playing and recording quality.

In 1960 appeared the Symphony No. 5, “Drammatica,” a 40-minute work that features a soprano vocalise with full symphony orchestra. Evidently this was Kabeláč’s own favorite among his symphonies, elaborating the notion of the human being crying out in defiance of oppression by an inhuman force. (This is similar to the use of the saxophone in the second movement of the Second Symphony.) The piece begs comparison with the popular Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki. My own preference is for the Kabeláč, as a more deeply penetrating work, but others may feel differently. One might say that Górecki sheds tears, while Kabeláč grits his teeth. In this work the musical language has become harsher and more dissonant, although the strongly tonal emphasis continues to prevail, despite more frequent modulations. Comprising four movements, the work opens with the composer’s characteristically intense seriousness. The second movement is like a scherzo, displaying Kabeláč’s propensity for rapid triplet subdivisions. The third movement displays a somber, melancholy beauty, while the finale reflects the suppressed rage that the composer evoked so effectively. Although there are long stretches when the vocalise is silent, there is a varied range of expression in the writing for soprano, without any sort of coloratura that might draw attention to the singer as a virtuoso, though her role is certainly difficult enough. Much of the credit for this belongs to the soprano herself, Pavla Vykopalová, who is able to call upon a subtle range of emotion and tone color. This will be especially notable to those who have heard the recording of the premiere, which took place in April, 1961, featuring soprano Libuše Domanínská—highly regarded in her time—with the Czech Philharmonic under the direction of Karel Ančerl. On this recording, released in 1993 on Praga PR 255 000, the soprano reveals a much less versatile instrument, which becomes strident at times, to a point approaching unlistenability. This new recording makes a much more convincing case for the work.

The Symphony No. 6, “Concertante,” followed in 1962. This work is scored for clarinet solo and orchestra, including two pianos. What is most remarkable is how the essential metaphysical content of Kabeláč’s music remains consistent and immediately recognizable, despite the considerably increased complexity of his treatment of harmony, texture, and tonality, not to mention the largely obliterated metrical pulse. One interesting feature is the use of a pre-recorded tape of sustained minor-seconds played by a muted string ensemble, which runs throughout the entire second movement. This device seems to underline the minor-second as a primary thematic element of the work. At times the symphony suggests a clarinet concerto, but there are long passages during which the instrument is silent. The solo instrument’s contribution is often melismatic, utilizing exotic modal scales, which were a longstanding source of fascination for the composer. But, as with the soprano in the preceding symphony, the instrument’s role always elaborates the essential expressive content, rather than drawing attention to the player’s virtuosity. On the whole, the work is relatively light in texture, without the heavy-handed bludgeoning that some might find hard to take in others of the composer’s works. There is also less driving forward motion; the second movement is especially static in effect.

It is especially difficult to write about the Symphony No. 7, as it centers around spoken passages, which are not even included in the accompanying program notes in Czech, not to mention in English translation. However the notes indicate that the text is drawn from the Gospel according to John and the Book of Revelation. According to program notes to a recent performance, written by Klára Mühlová and Vladimir Maňas, the text “does not feature a single verb, remaining a stream of bare meanings. The composer emphasizes the symbolic nature of words, leaving the making of connections between the propositions to the combining of music with words, and the explanation to the listener.” The work falls into three sections, entitled: 1) Eternity; 2) Humanity; 3) Eternity. In this work Kabeláč’s language has become totally dissonant and largely atonal. There is little sense of metrical pulse, and much cluster harmony, yet there is still a strong tonal sense. But most important, even without a printed text, the music conveys a sense of intense emotionality. The work was commissioned for the 1968 Prague Spring Festival, where it received its premiere. Kabeláč said, “The Seventh Symphony is my musical and philosophical credo.”

Kabeláč’s final symphony, subtitled “Antiphons” was commissioned as the centerpiece of the 1971 Strasbourg concert devoted entirely to his music. He scored the work for soprano solo, double mixed chorus, organ, and percussion ensemble, and selected the venue for the concert—St. Paul’s cathedral—specifically for the antiphonal effects that this Gothic cathedral made possible. As Kabeláč subsequently wrote to Karel Ančerl, “The symphony was written for a church, not perhaps as sacred music, but for its spatial possibilities …” By now Kabeláč’s language had become largely atonal and extremely dissonant, with some use of indeterminacy. But the emotional impact of the work follows so closely along the lines that his previous works had been pursuing that it is not hard to understand its expressive intentions.

The work is based on a famous episode from the Book of Daniel (Chapter V, verses 24-28). A message appears on the wall of Belshazzar’s Palace: mene tekel ufarsin. This is said to mean, roughly, “your days are numbered, you have been judged and found wanting, and your kingdom will be taken away.” These ominous words are counterbalanced in the text by three more uplifting words: amen,hosanna, and alleluia; all are repeated obsessively for their phonemic, as well as symbolic, value. As Pierre-E. Barbier and Paul Nardin wrote: “The last word sung, shouted, alleluia, is seen by some as an invocation to the Lord, a redeeming supplication, a heroic conquest of joy. Others, referring to the biographical particulars of the composer’s life, see the ultimate and long tenuto of the soprano as a final leap to avoid the void, hell … oblivion.” What occurred to me immediately was that this final statement in praise of God might have been, in 1971, Kabeláč’s ultimate act of defiance against the political regime.

The Symphony No. 8 falls into nine sections: five main sections, each separated by an organ interlude. The soprano soloist—Lucie Silkenová on this recording, who does an extraordinary job with a terribly taxing role—is required to sing absolute pitches, while the chorus sings relative pitches as well as microtonal passages. Percussion is used very actively, while the organ’s role is totally dissonant and atonal, yet conveys strongly emotional messages. Following an arch-form design, the fifth section is the climax of the symphony, and reaches a point, led by the solo soprano, verging on total hysteria. Essentially, the work is a stark drama of musical gestures, abandoning any semblance of classical moderation of any kind. It is the kind of piece—like many of those by Allan Pettersson, for example—that may be totally sincere, effective, and convincing in depicting an emotional attitude or state of mind, yet it may not find its way through one’s audio system very often.

In 1993 Praga Productions released a CD comprising the entire 1971 Strasbourg concert (PR 255 004—reviewed in 17:3). In addition to the symphony, included are two riveting Fantasias for organ, four Preludes for organ, and Eight Inventions for percussion. While the premiere performance of the symphony cannot compete with the refinement of this new performance or with its sonic impact, the earlier CD (very hard to locate now) documents an event of great significance to those for whom this composer holds appeal.

This new Supraphon release is an imperative acquisition for all those interested in European symphonic music of the twentieth century. The performances are all splendid, as is the sound quality. But I do have a few quibbles: One is that as delighted as I am to have this comprehensive release of Kabeláč’s symphonies, I fear that the prospect of a four-CD set is likely to overwhelm the non-Czech music lover who has never heard a note by the composer. Most people, I would think, would be more comfortable sampling one or two symphonies on a single CD, to see whether the music holds appeal for them. I would think that releasing the discs separately would have made more marketing sense. And speaking of marketing sense, how can Supraphon include two works with texts, without providing the texts, even in Czech? And third, as mentioned earlier, the work that has really begun to make an international reputation for Kabeláč is the orchestral passacaglia entitled, The Mystery of Time. Whether releasing one disc at a time, or the whole set of symphonies together, Supraphon might have considered adding a couple of “fillers,” including that one work, which is really more stunning than any of the symphonies, as fine as they are. In fact, I consider it one of the symphonic masterpieces of mid- 20th century European music, along with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra and some of the symphonies of Shostakovich, Holmboe, and Pettersson.

Some readers may be interested in the following personal recollections: I first encountered the music of Kabeláč in 1972. The all-Kabeláč concert in Strasbourg that the composer had been prevented from attending had taken place the preceding year. This concert was probably the most auspicious presentation of Kabeláč’s music during his lifetime, and perhaps ever since. What made it so auspicious was the fact that the concert was recorded and subsequently broadcast all over the world. In 1972 it was broadcast on New York City’s WRVR (whose music director at the time was the late Paul Snook). I happened to catch most of the concert simply by accident, having tuned in at a fortuitous moment. I was instantly struck by the music; the sense of an extraordinary compositional personality was apparent to me immediately. The next time I had the occasion to see Paul, I told him of my having discovered Kabeláč through that broadcast. Though he himself was not as taken with the music as I was, he loaned me his recording of the composer’s most notable work, The Mystery of Time. This piece clinched it for me: I felt that I had discovered an important compositional voice, and set about trying to acquire as many of his works on recordings and live-performance tapes as I could, and the more I heard, the more impressed I was.

In 1976 I was about to take my first trip to Europe, and decided that one item on the agenda would be a visit to Prague to meet Kabeláč. I wrote to the Czech Music Information Center, and expressed my interest in meeting the composer. Young and naïve about Eastern European musical politics, I was surprised when I received a gracious response from the Information Center, stating that they would be happy to receive me, and to direct me to other composers they thought would be more appropriate. I didn’t know just how to respond, but it was Kabeláč I was interested in meeting—not composers of their choosing with whose music I was totally unfamiliar. So I just pursued my plan, figuring I’d show up at this Information Center, and see what I could work out. When I appeared, I was curtly told that no one could facilitate my meeting Kabeláč, and if I wasn’t interested in the composers whom they had selected, they couldn’t help me. I did not expect this sort of reception, nor the general lack of cooperation everywhere I turned. I started to feel very intimidated, and was almost ready to just leave the country, when I passed a phone booth, and decided to simply look up Kabeláč in the phone directory, and call him on my own, without giving thought to matters of language. (I think I just figured anyone would be able to speak some English.) So I called him, and he answered the phone, and I introduced myself as an American musicologist and critic. In fact he spoke hardly any English, but somehow I managed to convey to him that I wanted to meet him, and he agreed to meet me that afternoon in the café at Smetana Hall.

We both showed up at the appointed time. At this point he was 68 years old, and displayed a very severe demeanor. It was clear that his English was so limited that communicating was going to be very difficult. But fortunately, his daughter soon arrived; she was more proficient in English and was able to act as interpreter. I began by expressing my enthusiasm for his music, and was surprised that he seemed to take this for granted, apparently assuming that his music was well known in the States. I told him how I had discovered his music by hearing that broadcast of the Strasbourg concert. This was very surprising to him; he had no idea that that concert had been broadcast so widely, and he grumbled about the fact that he had never received a cent from it. Then I began to ask him questions about his thoughts regarding trends in contemporary music internationally, other Czech composers, etc. But to each of these questions, he answered in heavily accented English, “Aha! You are a critic; you try to trick me. No, I will not answer these questions.” No matter how much I tried to reassure him of my innocent interest, it was clear that he was not going to open up to me in any way. Finally after about an hour or so, I thanked him and his daughter for meeting with me, and we said good-bye. I was extremely disappointed by the fruitlessness of the encounter, got into my rented car, and drove out of Czechoslovakia as fast as I could.  Later I learned that he had died three years later.

After I returned home I described my meeting with Kabeláč to my friends, as well as to people I encountered—over the following several years—who were either Czech themselves or of Czech background. I also pursued further research on my own. I gleaned from all this Kabeláč’s unfortunate personal history and the overwhelming challenges he had faced throughout his career. I realized that he had shown considerable bravery in agreeing to meet with me at all, without the authorization of government officials; and I learned that his paranoia was totally understandable under the circumstances. All this made his bitterness and suspiciousness far more understandable, while also shedding light on the violent intensity of most of his music.

KABELÁC: Eight Preludes. JANÁCEK: Sonata 1. X. 1905, “From the Street.” Three Fugues MARTINU: Piano Sonata

KABELÁC: Eight Preludes JANÁCEK: Sonata 1. X. 1905, “From the Street.” Three Fugues MARTINU: Piano Sonata • Ivo Kahánek (pn) • SUPRAPHON SU 3945-2 (68:37)

This is a most intriguing survey of Czech piano music of the 20th century, presented by the exciting young pianist Ivo Kahánek. To begin with, any new recording of music by Miloslav Kabelác is noteworthy. Kabelác (1908-1979) was the most important Czech composer of his generation—roughly contemporaneous with such figures as Shostakovich, Panufnik, and Lutoslawski—but his music remains little known outside his native country (and not that well known within it, I gather). A generous portion has been recorded over the years, but most of those recordings are no longer available. This is most unfortunate, because Kabelác was an immensely fascinating composer, who used a simple musical language to express extremely complex affective states, and who embraced tight structural controls in producing powerfully emotional music. Perhaps what is most worthy of note is that the expressive content of his music is unique—unlike that of any other composer, although a passage here and there may suggest Shostakovich, while a concern with extreme motivic economy may call Panufnik to mind. 

My own personal favorite among Kabelác’s works—and the one that seems to have attracted the most attention internationally—is an extended orchestral passacaglia, entitled The Mystery of Time. But the Eight Preludes for piano date from the same period (mid 1950s) and are probably his most fully realized music for the keyboard, offering a fairly representative sample of his compositional concerns. Kabelác’s musical language during this period was largely consonant and emphatically modal, with very simple textures and repetitive patterns. Each Prelude creates the impression of an improvisation oriented around a particular compositional device or pattern figuration, and is identified by an Italian adjective, e.g., ostinato, meditativo, sognante, etc. Much attention is focused on the open fifth and the triad—its polarization between minor and major, and its tonal transformation through the alteration of individual pitches, one at a time, while others are held constant. Rhythmic asymmetries are produced through subtly shifting accents within simple patterns. Some of these devices produce an effect that might be termed “proto-minimalist.” Others suggest non-Western musical languages and/or instruments. Despite the composer’s deliberately limited means, the Preludes embrace a wide and compelling array of unusual moods and attitudes, as well as a variety of keyboard usages. My own favorite—and the one I would present as a means of introducing the composer’s work—is No. 4, “Preludio Corale,” a piece that evokes a sense of sinister foreboding that must be heard to be grasped. Some are solemn, others are ethereal; but what is rarely found in Kabelác’s music is humor—his music is dead serious. 

Interestingly, this is not the first recording of Kabelác’s Eight Preludes. A CD devoted to a complete traversal of the composer’s piano music appeared about ten years ago (Panton 81 9012-2 131; see Fanfare 25:1), featuring the Czech pianist Daniel Wiesner; both recordings, incidentally, were produced under the direction of Milan Slavický. Although the older disc is now so obscure as to render any comparison between the two performances largely pointless, I will nevertheless note that Wiesner’s approach is somewhat drier and more literal, while Kahánek is freer, more “pianistic,” and more dynamic, showing greater attention to sonority. As fine as this new recording may be, any listener with an interest in Kabelác who encounters Wiesner’s recording is advised to grab it, as none of the other pieces on that recording are available elsewhere. I look forward to the day when Kabelác’s music begins to win recognition beyond the Czech Republic.

Less obscure than Kabelác’s Preludes, but not exactly a repertoire favorite, is Bohuslav Martinu’s late (1954) Piano Sonata. A highly rhapsodic work in three movements, these do not exhibit the customary contrasts in tempo and mood, nor is there much differentiation among them, although the central movement is longer than the others, and somewhat more probing. The overall character of the work is warmly luxuriant, almost bucolic, with figurations and harmonic voicings that are often surprisingly Brahmsian. Like a number of Martinu’s later works, the music is characterized by shifting shapes and patterns, and rhythmic irregularities within a consistent texture, with a spontaneity suggestive of a fantasia. It is less driven and more gemütlich than much of the composer’s music, while the textures are generally dense and busy. In comments quoted in the program notes, the pianist states that the challenge in performing Martinu is to accomplish “the sharpest possible projection of the work’s outlines” without sacrificing its spontaneity, so that it become more than “just a tangle of notes.” Kahánek manages to accomplish this pretty well.

Probably the best-known work on this new release is Janácek’s Sonata 1.X.1905, “From the Street,” supposedly inspired by an incident during which a political demonstrator was slaughtered by a soldier. The sonata was originally conceived in three movements, but the composer was dissatisfied with the finale, and discarded it, leaving only the other two, entitled respectively, “Presentiment” and “Death.” The work opens with a motif typical of the composer—distinctive and when once heard can never be forgotten. The movement develops this motif throughout, in the process creating an expression of great emotional and psychological complexity. The second movement does not exhibit the dirge-like quality one might associate with its title (that was the movement that was discarded). But in its strange, moody way supplies the needed balance to its predecessor.

As a special bonus, Kahánek includes on his program three little-known fugues by Janácek, written while he was in his mid 20s. In G minor, A minor, and A major respectively, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the composer’s treatment of this relatively precise mode of composition. The first is the most interesting, because its subject is a melody recognizably characteristic of the composer. The subject of the second includes a rapidly descending scale pattern, a quirk that becomes the chief focus of the piece. The third is the longest but least interesting, as its subject is abstract and devoid of character, and its development rather mechanical.

As indicated by the plentiful photos in the program booklet, Kahánek is quite young and rather Mephistophelian in appearance—unusual for a blonde. He seems deeply dedicated to the Czech piano repertoire and his performances on this recording illustrate his vital commitment to this music. I look forward to further samples of his artistry. 

Picks of the Year: 1999

Listed below are the five releases that thrilled and satisfied me the most during the past year. First is a new, up-to-date recording (reviewed last issue) featuring fine performances of Lili Boulanger’s greatest choral and orchestral works. This is an indispensable release for all admirers of French music of the early 20thcentury. It is not surprising that the first of Nicolas Flagello’s six operas to be recorded is The Piper of Hamelin (reviewed next issue). Although this charming adaptation of the classic fable was written for children, it reveals the same symphonic construction, thoroughgoing craftsmanship, and many of the spiritual themes found in the more serious works of this great American neoromantic. The Finnish Einojuhani Rautavaara is one of the strongest, most wide-ranging compositional voices of our time. Naxos has released a fine sample (reviewed in this issue) of his more accessible works, at a price low enough to make this a can’t-lose opportunity for all curious listeners who have yet to discover this fascinating creative figure. Although it does not meet my usual Want List requirement that the music be of the “neglected masterpiece” genre, I have decided to include the two-disc anthology featuring brilliant performances by Leon Fleisher (reviewed in this issue). I have always considered Fleisher to be one of the greatest of all mainstream pianists of mainstream repertoire; his performances illuminate those qualities that reveal the essence of the music’s greatness. Worthy of special mention are definitive readings of the Copland sonata and of the Liszt B minor. As I noted in my review (in 22:5), “Saxophone Masterpieces” truly lives up to its title, with superb performances of Creston’s classic sonata, Muczynski’s compact, soon-to-be-classic sonata, and Kabelác’s fascinating rarity. And finally, while acknowledging my own involvement as producer, I would like to mention as a postscript Tatjana Rankovich’s expert reading of the Flagello Piano Sonata, along with premiere recordings of the sonatas by Paul Creston and Vittorio Giannini (Phoenix PHCD-143; reviewed last issue).

BOULANGER Choral and Orchestral Works – Soloists/Stringer/Namur Ch/Luxembourg PO – TIMPANI 1C1046

FLAGELLO The Piper of Hamelin – McGrath/Strasser/Manhattan Schl. Of Music Prep. Div. Ch/SO – NEWPORT NCD 60153

RAUTAVAARA Symphony No. 3/Piano Concerto No. 1/Cantus Arcticus – Mikkola/Lintu/Royal Scottish Nat’l. O – NAXOS 8.554147



Picks of the Year: 1996

The Boulanger recording, originally released on LP in 1960, features five works of great beauty and depth of both spiritual and emotional content. Du Fond de 1’Abime, a setting of the Psalm 130, is a masterpiece and perhaps this tragically short-lived composer’s greatest work. This recording is indispensable and its reissue on CD is cause for rejoicing.

I cannot list my selection of the year’s five most musically significant releases without including the Flagello disc (reviewed in 19:6) , although as its producer, I realize that this appears to be a flagrant conflict of interest. My defense is this: Anyone who suspects that my citation of this disc is a crass attempt to increase my own financial returns is welcome to disregard the recommendation. I can only insist that I produced this disc because I think that the music is great and needs to be heard (rather than the reverse), and I invite readers to listen and decide for themselves.

The Dane Vagn Holmboe and the Englishman Edmund Rubbra have used the medium of the symphony as a vehicle through which to express their own individual metaphysical visions. Their works are lofty, eloquent, and accessible enough to be appreciated by most listeners motivated to participate in an aesthetic experience devoid of frivolous attractions. Perhaps its serious, reflective character has prevented this music from reaching a wider audience. These CDs (reviewed in 18:6 and 19:5) respectively), parts of complete recording cycles, provide excellent points of entry into deeply rewarding realms of expression.
Miloslav Kabelac and Lubos Fiser are Czech composers who have pursued visions of a more extreme emotional nature than Holmboe and Rubbra, giving them perhaps less general appeal. However, it is the very intensity of their extremism that I find especially compelling. Each composer has been represented individually on a number of recent recordings, but I chose this one (reviewed in 19:3) because it features both on one disc (the Kopelent work can be disregarded).

L. BOULANGER: Du Fond de 1’Abime. Psalm 24. Psalm 129. Vielle
Priere Bouddhique. Pie Jesu. 
Markevitch/Elisabeth Brasseur
Chorale/Lamoureux Orchestra. (EVEREST EVC-9034
FLAGELLO: Piano Concerti Nos. 2 and 3. Credendum. Overtures.
Oliveira/Rankovich/Amos/Slovak Philharmonic, Kosice. VOX 7521)
HOLMBOE: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9. Hughes/Aarhus Symphony
Orchestra. (BIS CD-618)
KABELAC: Symphony No. 3. FISER: Concerto for Two Pianos and
Orchestra. KOPELENT: The Song of the Birds.
Soloists/Pesek/Czech Philharmonic. SUPRAPHON SU 0035-2 031
RUBBRA: Symphonies Nos. 4, 10, and 11. Hickox/BBC National
Orchestra of Wales. (CHANDOS CHAN-9401

Picks of the Year: 1994

This year’s Want List offers a feast for those in search of accessible treasures of twentieth-century music. Two releases highlight the achievements of master composers in media for which they enjoyed a special affinity, while the other three bring to light masterpieces that have been hitherto all but unknown. The Barber set (reviewed in [Fanfare]18:1) features the solo vocal output of America’s greatest song composer, including ten that have never been recorded before, in glorious performances that must be termed definitive. The Bloch disc (also reviewed in 18:1) offers the first modern recording of Evocations, possibly the composer’s finest and most representative purely orchestral work, as well as the first recording ever of his last completed composition. The Creston disc (reviewed in this issue) presents the premier recording of his Symphony No. 5, which definitely belongs in the pantheon of great American post-romantic symphonies–forty years after it was written. The Supraphon disc (also reviewed in this issue) contains a reissue of the sole recording ever of The Mystery of Time, by Miloslav Kabelác — one of the most strangely compelling orchestral works to come out of mid-20th-century Europe, which must be heard to be believed. The Persichetti disc (18:1 again) features fine, sympathetic performances of seven less familiar pieces by America’s (if not the world’s) greatest composer of music for winds.

BARBER: Songs (complete). Studer/Hampson/Browning. (DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 435 867-2i two discs)
BLOCH: Evocations; Two Last Poems; Three Jewish Poems. Sedares/New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7232-2H1) 
CRESTON: Symphony No. 5; Toccata; Choreografic Suite. Schwarz/Seattle Symphony Orchestra/New York Chamber Symphony (DELOS DE-3127) 
KABELÁCThe Mystery of Time; Hamlet ImprovisationJANACEK: Glagolitic Mass. Ancerl/Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. (SUPRAPHON 11 1930-2 911) PERSICHETTIMusic for Wind Ensemble. Amos/London Symphony Winds. (HARMONIA MUNDI HMU-907092

Kabelác: Symphony No. 5, op. 41 (“Dramatic”)’. Hamlet Improvisation, op. 46. Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 9. HANUS: Sonata-Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, op. 9.

KABELÁC: Symphony No. 5, op. 41 (“Dramatic”)’. Hamlet Improvisation, op. 46. Karel Anderl conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; with Libuse Domaninska, soprano’. PRAGA PR 255 000 [ADD]; 56:00. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)

KABELÁC: Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 9. HANUS: Sonata-Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, op. 9. Daniel Veis, cello; Helena Veisova, piano. PANTON 81 1014-2 [DDD]; 42:36. Produced by Vojtech Mojzis. (Distributed by Albany.)

As far as I know, these are the first CDs devoted to the music of the Czech composer Miloslav Kabelác (1908-79). The notes accompanying the Praga disc identify him as “the great Czech symphonist of the 20th century,” with eight works in that form. I am familiar with most of these, along with many other of his works, and have long found him to be one of the most individual and strangely compelling European composers of his generation. However, I know little about him of a historical or biographical nature, beyond the basic facts one finds in The New Grove; unfortunately, Pierre-E. Barbier’s strangely elliptical program notes for the Praga release leave many questions unanswered, while the notes for the Panton disc say virtually nothing. In 1976 I went to Prague to meet with Kabelác and found him evasive and uncommunicative to the point of paranoia. This was shortly before a brain tumor paralyzed him for three years, then killed him. Kabelác seems to have been regarded as Czechoslovakia’s leading composer during the 1960s, when many of his works appeared on Supraphon. His career culminated in a concert devoted to his music at the Strasbourg Festival in 1971, which was broadcast internationally. However, I suspect that a combination of the artistic directions in which he was moving and personal-political factors led to the suppression of his music and the obliteration of his reputation from official media of communication, so that by the mid 1970s his work seemed to have disappeared. (I would welcome hearing from any reader who can illuminate this matter.)

M. Barbier’s program notes seem at pains to place Kabelác  within the context of Mahler and Schoenberg, but such a characterization seems to me way off the mark. I hear him as much more clearly related to the grim stoicism of Shostakovich, with his somber, brooding harmonic stasis and defiant rhythmic obstinacy. However, in contrast to Shostakovich’s sprawling narrative approach, Kabelác  developed a fascination with tiny intervallic and rhythmic cells, which serve as his structural source material. Some of the resulting works appear free and improvisatory in form; others display a sort of compulsive formalism similar to Panufnik. But nearly all are characterized by a grim relentlessness prone to outbursts of violence suggestive of extreme emotional states. Perhaps his most distinctive and characteristic work is a twenty-five-minute orchestral passacaglia composed in 1957 and entitled The Mystery of Time (recorded by Karel Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic soon after it was written). During the 1960s Kabelác’s music moved farther away from traditional syntax and became more idiosyncratic, with greater angularity and dissonance. But he never abandoned the strong feeling of tonal center or the sense of emotional desperation that characterized his work throughout his career. 

The Praga release is drawn from live performances dating from the 1960s. With the Symphony No. 5, “Dramatic,” composed in 1960, it plunges the listener new to Kabelác into very deep waters, as this is one taxing piece — an expansive forty-minute work in four movements, scored for soprano vocalise and large orchestra. As with most of Kabelác, the musical language itself is based on a chromatic modality that is somewhat exotic in effect, with conjunct lines and triadic harmony. Although its four movements attempt to offer some measure of contrast and variety, the overall effect is very somber and plaintive. Furthermore, the soprano, though not required to engage in any outrageous histrionics, is never used in a conventional cantabile fashion either. Rather, she serves as an omnipresent voice of woe, to the point where the listener may be tempted to cry, “Enough!” I feel ambivalent about saying this, because Kabelác is an extremely interesting and provocative composer, and I have been eagerly awaiting a revival of his work for some time. And as is the case with the more unusual figures, even flawed works have their value and shed light on the output as a whole. This is especially true for a composer as enigmatic as Kabelác. I am not even sure I would call this work “flawed,” but it is definitely extreme, and I cannot simply recommend it without some warning. On the other hand, an awful lot of people seem to enjoy the Gorecki Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which is a natural point for comparison. The Gorecki is probably somewhat easier to take, although it is more monotonous in rhythm and dynamics, because it has a warmth and tenderness missing from the Kabelác. Gorecki sheds tears, whereas Kabelácgrits his teeth. Also, Gorecki uses the soprano more sparingly, allowing long breaks between solos. Libuse Domaninska, one of the foremost Czech sopranos of the 1950s and 60s, deserves considerable credit for negotiating this relentlessly demanding part as successfully as she does.

The Hamlet Improvisation of 1963 is, at sixteen minutes, a much tighter, more effective work, although a less conventionally structured one. Despite its title, the work seems to be fully notated, the term “improvisation” said to refer to a “feeling of independence and freedom.” Here Kabelác’s language is more terse and gestural, rather than thematic. Outbursts of angry protest in cluster harmonies that suggest Messiaen alternate with passages of eerie mystery created by consonant harmony treated in the sort of unconventional atonal manner one finds in the music of Arnold Rosner. One suspects that this piece, which won high honors when first presented in 1964 at the Prague Spring Festival, is a camouflaged statement of sociopolitical protest, as were so many Eastern European works at the time. Although the performers are the same, the rendition presented here, adequate enough, is unfortunately not the one that was issued on Supraphon during the late 1960s; alas, that one was better played and better recorded.

Kabelác’s cello sonata was written during the early 1940s and is a more classically balanced work. The main motif of the first movement anticipates the corresponding motif in Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony; the finale, deleted by the composer initially, sounds as though it was composed even earlier, as it uses a somewhat different harmonic vocabulary and seems comparatively conventional. The rest, however, displays all the earmarks of theKabelác style: a grim intensity of mood and the use of exotic scales and insistent rhythms. The performance, of recent vintage, is extremely fine.

The cello sonata of Jan Hanuš (b. 1915) is a worthy discmate to the Kabelác. It is a solid, ambitious effort, serious in tone, with a dissonant language, but an expressive approach. However, it could benefit from a clearer sense of direction and a stronger dramatic focus. Again, it is very well played by cellist Daniel Veis and his wife, pianist Helena Veisova.   

Kabelác: Symphony No. 8 (“Antiphons”). Two Fantasias for Organ. Four Preludes for Organ. Eight Inventions for Percussion

KABELÁCSymphony No. 8 (“Antiphons”). Two Fantasias for Organ. Four Preludes for Organ. Eight Inventions for Percussion. Pierre Stoll conducting the Choirs of the Strasbourg Municipal Theatre and Psallette; Jana Jonasova soprano; Vaclav Rabas, organ.  Les Percussions de Strasbourg PRAGA PR 255 004 [ADD]; 75:13. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)

When I wrote the fairly extensive piece on Miloslav Kabelác in the previous issue of Fanfare, I had no idea that Praga would be issuing another disc so soon. It makes no sense for me to repeat everything I wrote there, so I can only urge readers interested in this music to look back at that issue for some background information. But this disc is really a far better introduction to the music of this remarkable composer.

The entire disc is devoted to a concert that took place in Strasbourg, France, in June 1971, which I mentioned in my previous review. (In fact, it was a broadcast of that concert in New York a year or so later that first introduced me to Kabelác’s music.) The major work on that program was the Symphony No. 8, “Antiphons,” composed during the previous year especially for the occasion — indeed, with the acoustical, spatial, and symbolic characteristics of the Church of St. Paul, where the concert was to take place, in mind. The symphony is scored for soprano solo, double chorus, percussion ensemble, and organ, and proved to be one of the composer’s last works. It is based on the episode from the Book of Daniel in which a prophecy of doom appears before Belshazzar as “handwriting on the wall” in the form of three words: mene, tekel, upharsin. These words — taken to mean, “your days are numbered, you have been judged and found wanting, and your kingdom will be taken away” — constitute virtually the entire text of the work, repeated obsessively for their phonemic, as well as symbolic, value. The symphony is in five movements, separated by four brief interludes, in something of an arch design.

The musical language belongs to what we think of as the Eastern European avant-garde of that time, with much greater emphasis on dynamics, texture, gesture, timbre, and mood than on melody, harmony, which is generally cluster or unison, or rhythm, which is generally static. However, dealing almost exclusively in dynamic extremes, the expressive content of the piece is extraordinarily intense. Indeed, the solo soprano’s contribution is often crazed, bordering on hysteria. Like the work of Allan Pettersson, Kabelác’s is unabashedly music with a message — a message about the harrowing plight of humankind. But alongside Kabelác, Pettersson is an optimist.

As described in my previous review, Kabelác’s mode of expression developed along a highly idiosyncratic continuum in which profound metaphysical issues are almost always in the forefront, although his earlier music is couched in a language utilizing a more conventional tonal syntax. During the late 1950s a series of works appeared in which content and language found a particularly successful fusion. One of these is a large orchestral passacaglia called The Mystery of Time, which is probably the best single introduction toKabelác and therefore is in urgent need of recorded documentation. Dating from about the same time are the Two Fantasies for organ. Conceived tonally and harmonically, these are works of tremendous power — portentous in mood, and haunted by a sense of impassive malevolence met by an indomitable defiance. Few works for organ achieve such immediacy of effect. The Four Preludes date from 1963. Their spirit is much the same as that of theFantasies but their language is sparer and more terse.

Eight Inventions for percussion ensemble were composed in 1963 and are probablyKabelác’s best-known music, having been performed extensively throughout the world. Their success is partly attributable to their use in a ballet called The Minotaur, which has been staged often. Though representative of the composer’s general approach, they are somewhat less subjective in content, making highly imaginative and evocative use of the instrumental sonorities. There is considerable Asian flavor to this music, overt but devoid of cliché.

This is quite an important release, and highly recommended to the listener who is drawn to the sort of music described here. The disc seems to owe its existence to Pierre-E. Barbier, who appears to be attempting to carry on a mission begun by Paul Nardin, an organist who wrote a monograph on Kabelác that has yet to be published. Barbier certainly deserves credit for this effort, as until a few months ago, Kabelác’s music seemed lost to oblivion. However, his program notes — to this disc and to its predecessor — tantalize with unexplained allusions and references, and place Kabelác in contexts that seem to me to be irrelevant. I look forward to the continued development of interest around the works of this unique composer.

KABELÁC: The Mystery of Time. Hamlet Improvisation. JANACEK: Glagolltlc Mass.

KABELÁC: The Mystery of Time. Hamlet Improvisation. JANÁCEK: Glagolltlc Mass.Karel Ancerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Libuse Domaninska soprano; Vera Soukupová alto; Beno Blachut, tenor; Eduard Haken, bass; Jaroslav Vodrázka, organ; Czech Philharmonic Chorus. SUPRAPHON 11 1930-2 911 [AAD]; 78:25. Produced by Miloslav Kuba, Eduard Herzog, Mirolav Venhoda. (Distributed by Koch International.)

Miloslav Kabelác (1908-79), a highly original and individual musical thinker, enjoyed considerable renown during the 1950s and 60s as the leading Czech composer of his generation. However, around 1970 he apparently offended the powers that were, and his many recordings and publications disappeared. Now, after more than two decades  of what seemed to be total obliteration, KabeIác’s music has, during the past year, made its first appearances on CD, mostly with reissue of broadcast performances from his period of prominence. For comment on those releases, together with further background information, see Fanfare 17:2, pp. 280-81, and 17:3, pp. 214-15. In both those reviews I cited The Mystery of Time as perhaps KabeIác’s most distinctive and compelling work, in urgent need of representation on disc. And now its sole previous recording returns to the catalog, bringing to eight the number of works by this composer currently available, although only one is a newly recorded performance.

The Mystery of Time, composed in 1957, is a work of tremendous power and originality. In some ways it is comparable to the Sinfonia Sacra of Andrzej Panufnik, although its aesthetic impact is quite different. But it shares with the Polish work a number of characteristics, among them a ready accessibility, despite the renunciation of most traditional formal and harmonic procedures, and of the sophisticated nuances, embellishments, qualifications, and other devices associated with “expressive” music. There is little sense of vulnerable humanity in Kabelác’s music — of a subjective point of view. Rather, it seems to suggest an impersonal landscape, governed by a supreme order far removed from the judgments or concerns of living creatures. The Mystery of Time represents Kabelác’s unusual metaphysical attitude in its most fully and successfully realized manifestation, conjuring the vast expanse of time that stretches from the infinite past to the infinite future, its unwavering forward momentum suggesting the inexorable motion of the heavenly bodies. The form has been described as a sort of passacaglia, but only in a loose sense: It is not based on contrapuntal development over a recurring bass line, but it does involve a gradual accumulation of energy through the evolving development of simple motivic elements. The work begins with an ominous murmur strongly reminiscent of the opening of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony (which dates from the same year), with regard to both mood and actual content. Basic, elemental intervallic material is introduced into a static void, slowly building momentum through a process of imperceptibly altered repetition that must be described as proto-Minimalist. The effect suggests the implacable passage of time viewed from the perspective of a dispassionate eternal consciousness. With great deliberateness the twenty-five-minute work gradually builds in intensity through motivic metamorphosis and interlayered levels of rhythmic acceleration in a grim, inexorable crescendo that eventually culminates in a revelatory cosmic orgasm, before finally returning to the static void.

Karel Ancerl was a close friend of Kabelác and a consistent champion of his music, introducing The Mystery of Time throughout Europe and even in the United States. This recording dates from 1960, and the performance is sympathetically conceived and solidly executed. Of course, a new recording, in modem sonics, would be most welcome, but this reissue provides a valuable opportunity to discover one of the most unforgettable European works of the mid-twentieth century. 

Hamlet Improvisation was composed in 1963 and represents a later development in Kabelác’s musical language — more terse, angular, dissonant, and gestural — but with much the same underlying metaphysical outlook. The title is enigmatic, as the work has no improvisational elements and its connection with Shakespeare’s play or the hero thereof is tenuous at best. The composer’s own explanation suggests the obfuscatory philosophical doubletalk that passed for musical commentary in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period. However, the piece, in which angry, dissonant passages alternate with moments of eerie mystery, might have been less misleadingly entitled Contrasts for Orchestra or some such. It make a strong impact as an abstract statement and is another of Kabelác’s most important works. This is music of far greater competence and depth than that of other figures from Eastern Europe who have momentarily seized the popular fancy.

With Hamlet Improvisation we have the unlikely case of two currently available recorded performances, each conducted by Ancerl. The other recording (Praga PR 255 000) is taken from a live performance in 1966; this new Supraphon reissue is from a studio recording made the same year and is much better.

I cannot agree with several of my colleagues that Janácek’s 1926 Glagolitic Mass is one of the half-dozen greatest chorus-with-orchestra pieces of this century (Fanfare 6:1; 10:3), although its self-conscious attempt to create an authentically Slavic expression of the Mass, without the trappings of the various mainstream choral traditions, is certainly successful. But as a listening experience it has never touched me deeply. The performance offered here dates from 1963 and was the recipient of a number of awards at the time of its release. As fine and idiomatic as it is, however, more modern performances, such as that led by Charles Mackerras (also on Supraphon), have been highly praised in these pages. 

KABELÁC: Eight Preludes. Passacaglia T.G.M. Seven Pieces. Motifs from Exotic Lands

KABELÁC Eight PreludesPassacaglia T.G.M. Seven Pieces. Motifs from Exotic Lands – Daniel Wiesner (pn) – PANTON 81 9012-2 131 (79:04)

The piano seems not to have been a major vehicle for Kabelác’s creativity, as his output for that instrument was small, and consists largely of pieces that were peripheral to his main compositional concerns, while also lacking the sort of virtuoso challenges that excite the interest of most pianists. This compact disc holds most of the composer’s music for the instrument. However, Kabelác fanatics—and his is the kind of music that inspires fanaticism—will not want to miss what this portion of his oeuvre has to offer. And, indeed, one work—Eight Preludes—belongs alongside his most notable achievements.

Those listeners who have been following the gradual release (much of it comprising reissues from the LP era) of so much Kabelác on CD during the past few years will not need much encouragement. And those who have already decided that this composer is not for them will find nothing here to change their attitudes. But I am sure that there are many seeing his name here for the first time. I hate to quote extensively from previous reviews, but also realize that many will not want to bother searching through back-issues. Yet, as something of a fanatic myself, I don’t want those who might welcome this music to miss the opportunity. Therefore, I will offer a brief overview, then recommend that those so motivated turn to Fanfare 22:1 for a discussion of the most recent previous Kabelác release, and follow the paper-trail of citations given there for other recordings and discussions thereof.

During the 1950s and 60s Miloslav Kabelác (1908-1979) was regarded as the leading Czech composer of his generation. Over the course of eight symphonies and other major works, his music evolved from a grim, starkly militant expression with firm—even blatant—tonal centers, sometimes reminiscent of Shostakovich, through a wide-ranging if highly idiosyncratic adaptation of more modernist techniques, such as serialism, aleatoric procedures, and the amotivic use of gestures and textures found in the works of Ligeti and Penderecki. But virtually all of Kabelác’s music is unified by a grim, relentless sense of fatalism and cosmic brutality. Though his music was recorded and performed widely throughout Eastern Europe during the “Prague Spring” of the 1960s, the 1968 crackdown seemed to result in a complete disappearance of both his music and of references to it. However, during the past seven or eight years much of his music has returned to availability.

The works of Kabelác that I find most rewarding and likely to have the broadest appeal are the orchestral work entitled The Mystery of TimeTwo Fantasias for organ, Ballade for violin and piano, and, perhaps, Symphony No. 3 for organ, brass, and timpani. All of these date from 1956-57, when the composer’s voice and expressive concerns seemed to speak most eloquently. Also from that time come the Eight Preludes for piano solo. Relatively simple in texture and ease of execution, and showing little interest in the instrument’s conventional parameters of expression, they are not what is thought of as “pianistic.” But they are both fascinating and hauntingly mysterious, their modest scale and diminished textural range permitting a deeper insight into the substantive elements that make this music so strangely compelling. Each prelude creates the impression of an improvisation oriented around a particular compositional device or pattern figuration, and is identified by an Italian descriptive term, e.g., ostinato, meditativosognante, etc. Much attention is focused on the open fifth and the triad—its polarization between minor and major, and its tonal transformation through the alteration of individual pitches, one at a time, while others are held constant. These slow harmonic shifts, achieved through processes not unlike those that have become clichés in the hands of Philip Glass, achieve the sort of meditative quality found in some minimalism and the “new spiritualism,” but I find the rhythm of activity and range of affect here more to my taste. Not all the preludes are slow and soft: Some also feature perpetual-motion patterns in rapid tempos, as well as other bolder effects. But most are oriented around triadic implications. And in each case the effect of the whole is more mysterious than can be explained by mere verbal description. I simply cite No. 4, ”Preludio corale” as one unforgettable five-minute piece that is worth the full price of the CD (more about that anon).

The other works on the disc are truly peripheral or of otherwise limited appeal and might well be overlooked were not the Preludes so worthy of attention. The earliest piece on the disc—indeed, the earliest Kabalác I know—is Passacaglia T.G.M. (The initials refer to the revered Czech political leader, Tomáš G. Masaryk, to whose memory the piece was dedicated.) Completed in 1937, the 16-minute work is based on a 12-tone theme. Its tone is typically severe—typical of the form and typical of the composer—and displays his characteristic tightness of control, but it lacks the sense of cosmic mystery that surrounds his mature work. In fact, its harmonic language is a little gray and unappealing, although Kabelác considered the Passacaglia to represent an important step in his artistic development.

Seven Pieces were composed in 1946, and they are the most conventionally pianistic music on the disc. One notes suggestions of other composers—chiefly Debussy and, perhaps, Scriabin—but these are momentary reminiscences. For the most part the music reflects the unique Kabelác “sound.” Although not as deep or as conceptually focused as the Preludes, their affinity with ordinary piano styles makes them more accessible to the casual listener.

Motifs from Exotic Lands is a group of ten pieces from 1959 that Kabelác constructed around usages derived from the music of the South Sea Islands, the Middle East, Alaska, Brazil, India, Africa, et al. About half contain actual folk melodies, while the others were composed “in the style of …” Needless to say, these pieces are nothing like the pseudo-ethnic rhapsodies that homogenize exotic musical mannerisms through the conventions of mainstream European virtuoso vehicles. But neither do they heighten the implicit idiosyncratic irregularities of their sources, as found in much of Bartók, for example. No—the word here is spare. These little settings are so stripped down that virtually nothing is left but their most basic elements. True, most are very easy to play. But they are not very interesting.

The young Czech pianist Daniel Wiesner performs this music with technical mastery and sensitive artistry. His efforts are especially commendable in view of the minimal vanity-gratification provided by music such as this.

One final note: Listeners who don’t find this CD or other releases of 20th-century Czech music in their local record emporia, and assume that any further searching would entail a great deal of “hassle” might be interested to know that this and other such releases are available via the website “www.musicabona.com”. Use of a major credit-card obviates dealing with foreign currencies, and the total cost, including shipping, is less than one would expect to pay for a comparable domestic CD purchased in-store.  

Saxophone Masterpieces. KABELÁC: Suite. CRESTON Sonata. MUCZYNSKI: Sonata. HEIDEN: Sonata; Fantasia Concertante.

SAXOPHONE MASTERPIECES – Eugene Rousseau (alto sax); Jaromír Klepác (pn) – RIAX  RICA-10001 (68:28)

KABELÁC Suite. CRESTON Sonata. MUCZYNSKI Sonata. HEIDEN Sonata; Fantasia Concertante.

The title of this rather obscure disc may appear to be hyperbolic, but as far as I am concerned, it is pretty accurate. Furthermore, these masterpieces of the repertoire are lovingly brought to life by one of the world’s leading concert saxophonists. In recent years Eugene Rousseau, who has taught at the University of Indiana for more than three decades, has been documenting his performances of the major saxophone works on recordings. Many of these have proven to be convincing showcases not only for the music, but also for Rousseau’s all-encompassing technical mastery and beautifully refined tone quality, abetting a tasteful, if prudently cautious, sense of musical interpretation. The performances on this disc were recorded in Prague in 1992, and also feature the Czech pianist Jaromir Klepác, who serves as Rousseau’s accompanist at the summer program of the Salzberg Mozarteum, where he teaches during the summer. One makes the assumption that it was Klepác who introduced Rousseau to the Kabelác Suite, which, though a rarity whose appearance on CD is most welcome, is rather incongruous stylistically with the examples of mainstream American neoclassicism that comprise the rest of the program.

I have written quite extensively about other recordings featuring the extraordinary music of Miloslav Kabelác (1908-1979), and refer the interested reader to reviews that appeared in Fanfare 17:2, 17:3, 18:2, 20:1, and 22:1. The Suite for Saxophone and Piano is a substantial 20-minute work in six movements, composed in 1959 (between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies). Rather than the group of Baroque-derived dance movements usually connoted by the word “suite” as used by neoclassicists, Kabelác’s work is a collection of largely rather ominous, portentous character pieces along the lines of the Inventions and Ricercares for percussion, the Preludes for organ and for piano, and other works of the composer. Although the saxophone does seem an odd candidate for the composer’s strangely impersonal — almost mechanical — cosmic reflections, the quality of the instrument conjures a sort of “human” persona through which these largely slow, introspective, and — at times — sublimely eloquent pieces are articulated.

The aesthetic opposite of the Kabelác Suite is the Saxophone Sonata of Paul Creston. A lively and warmly lyrical piece in the composer’s patented “Les Six on Times Square” manner, this three-movement work is ideally suited to the instrument. One of the first composers to write serious saxophone works, Creston also produced a suite, a concerto (with orchestra or band), a rhapsody (with organ), and a quartet. But the 1939 sonata is unquestionably the finest of them all. Indeed, it is one of Creston’s most tasteful and most superbly crafted chamber works — and probably his most popular one as well.

There have been at least a dozen recordings of the Creston Sonata, and I believe that I have heard most of them. None has rivaled the early 1950s Columbia monaural LP that featured the creamy-toned virtuosity of Vincent Abato and the amazing, feisty precision of Creston himself at the piano. But Rousseau and Klepác, while just as meticulously accurate and artfully coordinated, provide a richer, more fully realized musical experience by shaping melodic phrases and highlighting delightful rhythmic interplays in the more considered, thoughtful way that only a “second-generation performance” can. The modern recording quality is an additional enhancement.

A recurring presence in Fanfare for the past several issues is the Arizona-based Robert Muczynski, represented here by a powerfully expressive, highly concentrated seven-minute sonata in just two movements. Composed in 1970, Muczynski’s sonata occupies approximately the same locus on the American music spectrum as the Creston — neoclassical in form and style, warmly expressive in content, and articulated through a harmonic language calibrated to a relatively mild level of dissonance, without producing a bland or timid effect. Yet though their sonatas may exhibit the same generic style, the distinctive musical personalities of the two composers give rise to works that share little resemblance to each other. Muczynski’s opens with a dark, soulful melody of arresting beauty, developed at some length, and then followed by a grim and driving scherzo.

The two works for which the word “masterpiece” is a bit of a stretch are those by the German-born, Indiana-based Bernhard Heiden. Now almost 90, Heiden is well known for a large catalog of solidly crafted works, serious in tone and intent, and displaying a sincere and authentic musicality, aesthetically consistent with the principles of his teacher Paul Hindemith. However, the unfortunate limitation of Heiden’s otherwise estimable output is the composer’s inability to project a musical identity of his own, apart from the dominating presence of the elder master. Heiden’s Saxophone Sonata, preceding Creston’s by two years, is actually one of the first formally classical works written for the instrument (although Creston’s Suite dates from 1935). It could easily be mistaken for a work by Hindemith. Although I am sure that Rousseau’s interpretation has been authenticated by the composer, the tempos of the first two movements struck me as uncomfortably fast, with some uncoordinated moments between the two players as well.

Heiden’s Fantasia Concertante was written almost half a century later than the sonata and, in truth, Hindemith’s fingerprints are rather less apparent. This is a finely crafted free-form abstract work, just under 15 minutes in duration, and quite imaginative in its sober, no-nonsense manner. Rousseau has recorded the Fantasia in a version with band accompaniment on a disc (Delos DE-3188; see Fanfare 21:3, pp. 151-52) that also features Muczynski’s Saxophone Concerto. That one has the obvious advantage of greater tonal variety, but the piano reduction is an acceptable alternative.

All in all, this is quite a valuable release, and one that will please more than just saxophone enthusiasts, although it might easily be overlooked. Not only are Rousseau’s performances superb, as stated earlier, but pianist Klepác does quite an extraordinary job of capturing the spirit of a style of music that is often completely mangled by non-American performers. However, there are a few production blemishes that I would be remiss in failing to mention: First, no movement titles are given anywhere on the package — you’d be surprised how much they are missed! Second, the quantity and extent of typographical errors is quite excessive, including repeated confusion between the names Kabelác and Klepác. (The disc is available from RIAX, PO Box 8032, Bloomington, IN 47407, or www.riax.com)