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: 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

NOVAK: Eternal Longing; In the Tatras; Moravian-Slovak Suite.

NOVAK: Eternal Longing; In the Tatras; Moravian-Slovak Suite. Karel Sejna conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra. SUPRAPHON CRYSTAL — 11 0682-2 011 [ADD]; 65:00. Produced by Eduard Herzog and Jaroslav Krcek.

This CD reissue is an excellent introduction to the music of Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949), regarded during a portion of his lifetime as the Czechs’ foremost composer. The three compositions presented here were all written about the same time (1902-04), and were the very works that catapulted him to prominence. However, his period of ascendancy was short-lived: within a few years Janacek had surpassed him in international stature, and Novak was consigned to oblivion as a reactionary.

Novak had been a fellow-student and friend of Josef Suk in Dvorak’s composition classes. He was a highly self-critical individual, who felt that he fell short of Dvorak’s dictum that artistic personality was a composer’s most essential requirement, and his fear was probably justified. Novak may be seen as the height of Czech late-romanticism, blending the legacy of Dvorak with the ethos of Richard Strauss. The strongest thematic veins in his work are personal responses to phenomena of Nature and elements of folk melon, and both veins permeate the works presented here. In the Tatras memorializes Novak’s great love of the Tatra Mountains within the framework of a symphonic poem depicting a storm, including anticipation and aftermath. It is an example of Central-European late-romantic nature-painting — a sort of small-scale Alpensinfonie. Eternal Longing is a symphonic poem based on a tale of Hans Christian Andersen, full of heated passions and lush atmosphere. It is an appealing work to the sympathetic listener, but at exactly the same time, Arnold Schoenberg was composing Pelleas and Melisande and, as with In the Tatras, Novak’s music is somewhat dwarfed by the accomplishments of. a greater talent cultivating a similar aesthetic domain. Perhaps the Moravian-Slovak Suite suffers less by comparison with other music. Inspired by a region much loved by Novak, this is an expansive, affectionate, and luxuriant group of descriptive tone-paintings in a clearly post-Dvorak language, although its rich lyricism almost suggests Puccini in its evocation of spiritual feelings in the opening and closing sections.

Although Novak’s work was overshadowed by the greater accomplishments of some of his contemporaries, I have always found a stronger melodic profile and tighter dramatic sense in his music than in that of, say, his colleague Josef Suk. The performances here are excellent, effectively remastered from recordings originally made during the late 1960s. Listeners with an appetite for the limitless manifestations of the late-romantic spirit will find this a rewarding disc.

MARTINU: The Five Piano Concertos. Concertino for Piano Orchestra.

MARTINU: The Five Piano Concertos. Concertino for Piano Orchestra. Jiri Belohlavek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Emil Leichner, piano. SUPRAPHON — 11 1313-2 032 DDD]; two discs: 75:56, 74:14. Produced by Jana Smekalova

Although the music of Bohuslav Martinu enjoyed a brief period of international prominence during the 1940s, it was soon eclipsed by other music presumed to represent more “advanced” compositional thinking. However, during the past twenty years, his work has been rediscovered by a new generation of performers and listeners, as his vast output is gradually being made available for general consumption. With someone as prolific as Martinu, who managed to produce some 400 works, this process takes a long time. Such compositional workaholics, like his contemporaries Villa-Lobos and Milhaud (not to mention Martinu’s erstwhile student Hovhaness, treated elsewhere in this issue), seem to lack the capacity to monitor the quality of their production, so the job is left to others. Typically, the resulting group of truly distinguished and significant works is no larger than that of composers of more moderate productivity, but this essential core is buried among reams of routine, formulaic redundancy, and this is as true of Martinu as it is of the others mentioned above (and of the 18th-century prototypes for this sort of fecundity). But determining which of his 400 works really represent the composer at his best is a daunting task, requiring familiarity with at least 60%-70% of them. Now some 35 years since Martinu’s death, I wonder how many critics and musicologists have reached that point; I myself cannot claim acquaintance with more than 10%, at the most. And so, the “assessment” phase proceeds before the “discovery” phase has really been completed, with many untested assumptions, premature generalizations, unwarranted conclusions, and some unexpected discoveries along the way.

Interestingly, the unearthing, sorting, and sifting of Martinu’s output has roughly coincided with the existence of Fanfare as a vehicle for discourse concerning new musical discoveries. Reading through the comments of a variety of writers in this journal on the subject of Martinu over the course of 16-17 years offers a fascinating microcosmic view of this process. One observation that emerges is that the grim, harsh, and darkly propulsive Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani, seems to garner unanimous praise as a masterpiece (an assessment with which I have no quarrel). But an initial critical enthusiasm welcoming an engaging creative voice marked by freshness, vigor, and humanity, and graced by distinctive individual touches, seems gradually to have given way to a certain amount of disappointment. There have been complaints about Martinu’s lack of formal focus, about his indulgence in empty pattern-spinning and in mannerisms that, with repetition, become irritating clichés, and there has been an increasing awareness of the duplication of meaning that is virtually inevitable in an output of such dimensions.

For most composers with five piano concertos to their credit, such a cycle would stand as a central component of their canon, and if those five concertos existed alongside nearly 40 other pieces for piano, including additional concerted works, one might conclude that the piano were the primary medium for such a composer. But neither of these assumptions seems to hold for Martinu. With a particular propensity for the concertante concept, he spewed forth dozens of such works (again, like his 18th-century antecedents), and the piano concertos seem simply to be five more, though, presented along with the Concertino that appeared between Nos. 2 and 3, they do span most of his compositional career (unlike his six symphonies, for example which all appeared during a twelve-year period). The inclusion of the Concertino is appropriate, as it is really no more different from the concertos, with regard to weight, style, or dimensions, than they are from each other. So what we have on this generously filled two-CD set are six full-length works spanning the years 1925-1958, adding up to two and a half hours of music that strikes me as, for better and worse, typical Martinu.

By “typical Martinu,” I refer to the composer’s penchant for motoric rhythmic figurations that bristle with a fluent vigor spiced by syncopated sub-groupings, though, as has been noted, in less inspired passages, the music may simply clatter along mechanically. This constant bustle of activity is offset by lilting, Czech-accented melodies that at times soar in richly-scored triadic harmonizations. The piano concertos are not heroic, romantic virtuoso vehicles, but are rather created along late-Baroque/classical lines, with outer movements characterized by a playful exuberance and slow movements marked by lyrical warmth and an occasional touch of mystery. The emotional tone remains moderate throughout. It took Martinu a number of years to develop his peculiarly idiosyncratic language into its “mature” form, though one can discern consistently recognizable elements throughout the stages of evolution. So while listening to one of these concertos after another can easily create a sense of redundancy, there is no question that the kaleidoscopic stream of imagery found in No. 5 is a far cry from the straightforward chunka-chunka regularity of No. I.

Martinu composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1925, while he was living and studying in Paris. I challenge the conventional view that the influence of Stravinsky and Les Six pervade his music from this period; I am not sure that Martinu didn’t arrive at his own brand of neoclassicism independently of these other voices, which convey to me an entirely different mentality. This First Concerto certainly is characterized by clean, diatonic lines and clear, spare textures that suggest 18th-century practices. The outer movements bounce along cheerfully in a happy-go-lucky fashion, while the slow movement generates tender warmth quite alien to Stravinsky,

The Second Concerto was composed in 1934, but was revised ten years later. In this work, Martinu’s distinctive lilting lyricism blossoms forth, enriching the cheerful neoclassical bounce.

The Concertino dates from 1938 — the same year as the aforementioned Double Concerto — and strikes me as a psychologically and musically more complex work than both earlier concertos, with some of the ambiguity of mood that characterizes Martinu’s later work. I assume that the diminutive denotation of the title is prompted by its shorter duration, though the Concerto No. 4 is shorter still.

Concerto No 3 of 1948 displays a greater richness of orchestration and variety of texture. Toward the beginning, a distinctive two-chord figure — sometimes called the “Moravian cadence” (a dominant-quality thirteenth-chord in inversion built on the fourth scale degree resolving to the tonic) —  which Martinu used until it became something like a tic, is proclaimed here for the first time in these works. Rather peculiar are repeated references to the phraseology of Beethoven and, to a lesser extent, Brahms — not so obvious as to be deliberate quotations but too frequent to be meaningless coincidences. Though the work exhibits many of Martinu’s most engaging qualities, its insistent lack of expressive contrast creates a weak profile.

The works discussed thus far are of interest primarily to those listeners who have an insatiable appetite for Martinu’s music and welcome all they can get their hands on. Though each is ingratiating enough, these pieces offer no more or less pleasure or stimulation than other comparable works by the composer. To hear one at a time once in a while is fine, but, taken all at once, the repeated mannerisms and the exceedingly restricted expressive range make a poorer cumulative impression than the music really warrants. However, the Fourth and Fifth Concertos are on a higher level, displaying far greater individuality, psychological complexity, and musical interest.

The two-movement Concerto No. 4, subtitled, “Incantations,” was completed in 1956, and seems regarded by critical consensus as another one of the composer’s masterpieces. It is certainly the most challenging of these concertos in its language and the least conventional in form, with brittle sonorities, angular percussive gestures and a nervous insistency that combine to create a sense of urgency and expressive power missing from its predecessors, and evoke a sense of the fantastic characteristic of Martinu’s most memorable works.

This sense of the fantastic is given even fuller expression in the Concerto No. 5, “Fantasia Concertante,” though its harmonic language is less angular and dissonant than in No. 4. As recently noted by Benjamin Pernick (Fanfare 17:3, pp. 231-2), this concerto resembles the Symphony No. 6, “Fantaisies Symphoniques” of 1954, in its profusion of richly varied sound-images that tumble forth in a swirling torrent of imagination, creating at times an almost other-worldly effect.

Although I haven’t heard it myself, I am tempted to recommend to all but the most omnivorous Martinu devotees the single Campion disc discussed in the review just cited, as it features specifically the Fourth and Fifth Concertos, along with the Harpsichord Concerto. However, Pernick was somewhat reserved in his evaluation of those performances. The two-disc Supraphon set discussed here was recorded between 1986 and 1989, and the performances and sound quality strike me as perfectly adequate. Of course, those fanatical devotees won’t hesitate in acquiring this first complete recording of the Martinu Piano Concertos.

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. 

FISER: Double. Lament for the Ruined Town of Ur. Crux. Istanu. Sonata for Chorus, Piano, and Orchestra. Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. KABELAC: Symphony No. 3. KOPELENT: Il Canto dei Augei

FISER: Double. Lament for the Ruined Town of Ur.  Crux.  Istanu. Sonata for Chorus. Piano, and Orchestra. Vaclav Smetacek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Pavel Kuhn conducting vocal soloists, chorus, and percussion ensemble; Ivan Straus, violin; Petr Sprunk, percussion; Wilfrid Hiller conducting Percussion Ensemble; Elizabeth Hiller-Woska, speaker; Daniela Tarabova, flute; Libor Pesek conducting Prague Radio Chorus and Orchestra; Frantisek Maxian, piano PANTON 81 1144-2 911 [AAD]; 54:06 Produced by Jaroslav Smolka.

FISER: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. KABELAC: Symphony No. 3. KOPELENT: I1 Canto dei Augei. Liboi Pesek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Brass Harmonia; Garrick Ohlsson, Frantisek Maxian, pianos; Alena Vesela, organ; Sigune von Osten, soprano. SUPRAPHON SU 0035-2 031 [DDD]; 52:37. Produced by Jana Smekalova

Lubos Fiser (b. 1935), is one of the most fascinating Czech composers of his generation, although awareness of his work outside his native country is limited. Like Zdenek Lukas, Jiri Jaroch, Miloslav Kabelac, and others of his countrymen, Fiser cultivated a stark, bleak, brutal expressive vision during the 1960s and early 70s, sharing enough musical devices with his colleagues to constitute something of common “sound.”  These shared elements include terse motifs built from small melodic intervals, abrupt dynamic contrasts, violent gestures, and an often static approach to harmony. Many of these qualities can also be found in the music of Karel Husa, who, bringing this approach with him to the West, won considerable acclaim for music that was not really as strikingly original as it was received by those less familiar with its national stylistic context. to the West, won considerable acclaim for music that was really as strikingly original as it was received by those less familiar with its national stylistic context. For the average American listener, Husa is probably the natural frame of reference when considering the music of Lubos Fiser.  

Compared with that of his compatriots, Fiser’s music might be described as especially elemental — perhaps starker, bleaker, and more brutal, with a particular emphasis on the juxtaposition of expressive extremes and a greater concern for dramatic impact than structural complexity. Hence, despite its capacity to make a powerful — at times, stunning — effect, Fiser’s music tends to be quite simple conceptually, which probably accounts for its success in such multimedia contexts as television, theatre, and dance. But this quality also makes the music somewhat less durable under deeper-level scrutiny and analysis. These two discs provide a welcome opportunity to become acquainted with a substantial and representative selection of Fiser’s music, with pieces composed between the years 1969 and 1985. The Panton disc is a compilation of recordings released on obscure Czech LPs during the 1970s and early 80s. The Supraphon disc features more recent performances, commercially available — I believe — for the first time.

The earliest work presented here is the only real disappointment: Double, an 8 1/2-minute orchestral piece based on an alternation between harsh modernistic passages and episodes of pseudo-18th-century prattle. It is an obvious, sophomoric gimmick explored by many other composers, often more effectively.  

Far more compelling and alone worth the price of the disc is the 6 1/2-minute Crux, for violin, timpani, and bells. For me, this brief work, dating from 1970, is quintessential Fiser and belongs to the distinguished category of works known as “lease-breakers.”  It is based on a simple motif comprising two half-steps developed by the violin over an ominous pulsation of the timpani with ever-increasing intensity until it. reaches a state of near-hysterical frenzy. I have heard Crux used with hair-raising effectiveness to accompany a reading by James Earl Jones of Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum. Evidently, the work is also in the repertoire of Gidon Kremer, and I would love to hear him play it. 

Dating from the same year is the Lament for the Ruined Town of Ur — a setting for vocal soloists, chorus, and percussion o£ an ancient Sumerian text. This is echt Fiser — a wild sonic experience based largely on non-pitch-oriented (i.e. sprechstimme-like) text- setting, shaped with dramatic intensity. Without the presence of text or translation, the fact that this bizarre 11-minute composition is so gripping testifies to Fiser’s remarkable ability to create powerful sound-images without the benefit of musical or programmatic materials and techniques typically used to engender such emotional effects.  

Much the same can be said of Istanu, composed a decade later . Here an ancient — and undisclosed — Hittite text. is used, evidently an ode to an ancient Sun-god. Scored for speaker, flute, and percussion, it is of virtually identical duration as the Lament … and creates a similarly chilling effect with largely non-pitch-oriented materials.  
The latest, longest, and most musically substantial work on the disc is the Sonata for Chorus, Piano and Orchestra dating from1981Here thechorus has no text at all, as the poem originally set by Fiser is said to have prompted politically-based objections. However, the absence of a text in no way precludes a deeply moving emotional expression of grim, harrowing despair. Again the effect does not rely on conventional musical techniques of emotional manipulation, although tonal relationships and resolutions are employed, if in a simple, somewhat schematic way.

The Supraphon disc adds the 1985 Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra to this sudden mushrooming of the Lubos Fiser discography. This is a major work, quite similar in effect to the Chorus/Piano Sonata just described — stark, somber, and angular, with an obsessively persistent concentration on small-interval motifs. Simple in phraseology and lacking the elaborate instrumental and textural interplay one would usually expect from a virtuoso duo-concerto, the work nevertheless makes a  strong — if perhaps somewhat musically insubstantial — dramatic impact. 

No one can listen to the music of Miloslav Kabelac alongside that of Lubos Fiser and fail to perceive the psychological and stylistic affinities they share. Kabelac has been discussed at some length in these pages (17:2, pp. 280-81; 17:3, pp. 214-15; 18:2, pp 267-69), in connection with some major releases that have appeared during the past couple of years.

Kabelac’s Symphony No. 3 dates from 1957 and displays the characteristics found in his other works of that period, such as the Fantasias  for organ and the orchestral masterpiece, The Mystery of Time. A generation older than Fiser, Kabelac retains somewhat greater reliance on traditional musical devices, such as counterpoint and triadic harmony. But, as with Fiser, the harmony may be simple, but it is in no way conventional, and serves to evoke a sense of indomitable power. Its similarly grim persistence suggests portents of violent rage, suppressed under great duress. The symphony is scored for organ — an instrument that Kabelac treats with macabre effectiveness — brass, and timpani. It is somber and funereal, yet militant in spirit throughout. Some may find a certain monotony in its relentlessness (a characteristic of most of Kabelac’s music) but others will be compelled by its haunting sense of mystery and transported by the revelatory intensity of its peroration. Il Canto dei Augei (1980) by Marek Kopelent (b. 1932) is considerably less interesting than the other music discussed here. Described as a “concert aria” for soprano and orchestra, it is a somewhat Berio-like parodistic take-off on Mozartian models. To have 15 minutes of an otherwise outstanding disc devoted to music of such lesser caliber is an unfortunate, though minor, blemish. The performances on the Panton disc are excellent, though the sound quality reflects the 1970s vintage. The Supraphon boasts superb performances as well as fine sound quality.

KABELAC: Symphony No. 4, “Camerata”. Euphemias Mysterion. Reflections. Do Not Retreat. Six Cradle-Songs.

KABELAC: Symphony No. 4, “Camerata”. Euphemias Mysterion. Reflections. Do Not Retreat: Six Cradle-Songs. Prague Chamber Orchestra. Eduard Fischer conducting the Prague Chamber Soloists and Sonatori di Praga; Irena Torbus-Mierzwiakowa, soprano. Vaclav Smetacek conducting the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Alois Klima conducting the Prague Radio Chamber Orchestra and Men’s Chorus. Martin Turnovsky conducting Prague Radio Women’s Chorus and Chamber Ensemble. SUPRAPHON SU 3020-2 911 [AAD]; 72:36.

The revival — or, perhaps, resurrection — of Miloslav Kabelac continues. Thirty years ago he was regarded as Czechoslovakia’s foremost living composer (although his reputation had yet to extend beyond his nation’s borders). Ten years ago his music was unheard even in his own land. Today half a dozen CDs feature his works (seeFanfare: 17:2, pp. 280-81; 17:3, pp. 214-15; 18:2, pp. 267-9; 19:3, pp. 199-200), including four of his eight symphonies. True, most of these discs comprise reissued material originally released on LPs during the composer’s brief period of prominence. But these are important recordings nonetheless, providing what is now quite a representative sample–indeed, almost a quarter of his output. This music testifies to Kabelac’s place among the half dozen or so most compelling and individual compositional voices to emerge in Europe during the years leading up to World War II.

This latest reissue compilation surveys the full range of Kabelac’s creative development featuring one of his earliest works, as well as one of his latest, in recordings dating from the late 1950s (monaural to the mid 1960s (stereo). The early is Neustupujte!, translated here as Do Not Retreat!  Based on 19th-century Bohemian folk poetry, this 9-minute work dates from 1939 and is the piece that first brought Kabelac to national attention. It is an overtly patriotic work composed in the wake of the Nazi invasion, and is scored for men’s voices, winds, and percussion in a literal, militant socialist-realist vein, suggesting the relentless tread of marching footsteps. As the listener familiar with Kabelac’s music will quickly realize, such a musical effect fits quite naturally into the composer’s own stark, relentless style, though its treatment here is far more obvious and simplistic than in later manifestations.

Six Cradle Songs are Kabelac’s original settings of Moravian and Bohemian folk poetry, composed during the mid 1950s and scored for contralto solo, women’s voices, and chamber ensemble. Each song is less than two minutes long, and their musical substance is quite simple and spare, but the effect is eerie, somber, and haunting.

The Symphony No. 4, “Camerata” dates from 1958 and is the largest work on the disc. Divided into four movements, two of them slow according to the sonata da chiesa format, its form and style make it the most “classical” of Kabelac’s symphonies, without in any way obscuring his own idiosyncratic compositional personality. The two faster movements are somewhat less interesting, with a characteristic over-reliance on repetitive motor rhythms. But the slow movements display the dark, contemplative eloquence found in the composer’s best works.

During the 1960s, Kabelac expanded his language, up to then doggedly consonant and tonal, to include more dissonant harmonic features, a freer approach to tonality, and sparer, more epigrammatic gestures, while retaining his propensity for a stark, emphatic rhythmic pulse. The works from this period create a harsher, more brutal impact, not unlike the music of younger compatriot Lubos Fiser (see Fanfare 19:3). This later stage of development is exemplified by the 1964 Reflections for large orchestra. These nine tiny pieces utilize mirror techniques in their construction. But despite the expansion of his musical syntax, the basic materials, gestures, and moods are those that underlay Kabelac’s work throughout his life
The following year, Kabelac completed his Euphemias Mvsterion, translated here asThe Mystery of Silence. Like the Symphony No. 8, “Antiphons,” as well as much of Fiser’s music, this work concentrates on a few words from an exotic language this case, ancient Greek) for both their symbolic significance and their sonorous impact. Here pitch and harmony are subordinated to the almost purely gestural, creating an effect of abject, hysterical terror. Like Fiser’s CruxEuphemias Mvsterion might be described as a “lease-breaker,” as the soprano reiterates her enigmatic text with increasing intensity, until she is truly screaming, rather than singing, to the accompaniment of violent instrumental gestures, before it all recedes into a mysterious void. The work is unforgettable, though many listeners will also find it unbearable.

Kabelac’s music is too relentlessly intense, brutal, and idiosyncratic in expressive content to appeal to everyone. But those listeners who have found the previous releases of his works to be compelling will find this disc indispensable.