KURKA Symphony No. 2. Serenade. Music for Orchestra. Julius Caesar • Carlos Kalmar, cond; Grant Park O • CEDILLE CDR-90000 077 (64:00)
Well, here we go again: Just a few issues back (Fanfare 27:6) I was reviewing an Albany Symphony miscellany in which by far the most interesting piece was the Second Symphony of Robert Kurka, making its first appearance on CD after languishing in oblivion for decades since its release in 1961 on a Louisville LP. In that review I recounted the sad circumstances of Kurka’s short life: his death from leukemia in 1957 at age 36, just as his music was beginning to engender widespread attention in auspicious circles. Then, of course, I went on to advocate a more comprehensive survey of his work, etc. Now, just a few months later, arrives a new, all-Kurka CD, courtesy of Cedille, the Chicago-based company whose mission seems to include highlighting the work of lesser-known composers from that part of the country. (It was Cedille that released Kurka’s last, largest, and best-known work, an opera, The Good Soldier Schweik. [see Fanfare 26:1] in 2002). Kurka was born and raised in the large Czech community of Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
Although Kurka’s current reputation—such as it is—rests chiefly on Schweik, the opera suggests a direction in which the composer may have been going, but it is not really representative of the music he had been writing up to that time. Kurka is one of those composers with such a strongly individual voice that his music is instantly recognizable as his own. The most obvious influence on his style is Prokofiev, whose musical fingerprints are often clearly apparent. However, equally obvious is Kurka’s fascination with clashing major- and minor-thirds. This mitigates Prokofiev’s looming presence somewhat, while giving Kurka’s music a superficially American sound, leading some commentators to describe his style as “jazz-influenced.” However, there is an obsessive quality to Kurka’s attraction to this modal ambiguity that makes it seem more personal than a “national” trait. Take these two factors and distill them into the rhythmically vigorous, exuberantly optimistic generic language of American symphonic music of the 1950s and you have a good idea of “the Kurka sound”—except for one rather ineffable element: a most distinctive melodic/harmonic synthesis that is startling at first encounter and unforgettable forever after. (Two examples of this phenomenon found on the recording at hand: Symphony No. 2, third movement, second theme; Serenade, first movement, second theme).
As with all composers whose lives have ended prematurely, one wonders what further accomplishments might have lain before him, in what directions his style might have evolved. Of course, such speculation is idle and fruitless. However, on the basis of what he did accomplish, Kurka stands as one of the leading contributors to the American orchestral repertoire of the 1950s, an enormously fertile decade for American composers. (I can cite more than 25 American symphonies composed during that one decade that qualify as works of the highest merit.)
The earliest work on this CD is called Music for Orchestra, and dates from 1949, although it was not heard until June, 2003, when Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra performed it in conjunction with this recording. Predating the emergence of Kurka’s personal voice, it is a tight-fisted work in one movement of about 15 minutes duration. Far more fiercely aggressive and dissonant than the composer’s later works, the piece calls to mind the Bartók of, say, The Miraculous Mandarin and the Dance Suite. Although some passages are a little dry and uninteresting, for the most part it is quite compelling, and brilliantly performed here.
Kurka’s Symphony No. 2 dates from 1953. This was the first work of his that I heard, more than 40 years ago, and it made an immediate and powerful impact on me. These two new recordings—the recent Albany SO performance and this even more polished and tightly focused reading with the Grant Park Orchestra—have rekindled my enthusiasm, as they reveal subtle details barely audible on the old LP. As I wrote in the Albany review, Kurka’s Symphony No. 2 falls right into the mainstream style of the mid-century American symphonic genre: “conventionally classical in form, brash and assertive in attitude, propelled by energetic rhythmic syncopations, which are offset by more subdued, nostalgic passages. Fresh and exuberant, it reveals a certain naivete, both compositionally and emotionally, and the influence of Prokofiev weighs heavily…. And yet, from the moment I first heard it, I was struck by both the authenticity of its expression and the strength of its unmistakable personality …”
In four movements, the Serenade for Small Orchestra appeared the year after the symphony, and bears the following opus number. That it is the work of the same composer is unmistakable from the first phrase, although it is, on the whole, a more relaxed, somewhat less driven work. Each movement is associated with familiar lines from the poetry of Walt Whitman, although—as is typical of composers with strong personal styles—the result is far more Kurka than Whitman. This work was also first recorded—a year or two after the symphony—by Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra. Although it always sounded a little lame in their rather scrappy performance, the Serenade sounds fresh and bright in this new recording.
The latest work on the recording, composed the year following the Serenade, is Julius Caesar, subtitled, “Symphonic Epilogue after Shakespeare.” Once again, only by the greatest stretch of imagination might one infer a connection with either Caesar or Shakespeare—but Kurka is everywhere apparent, notwithstanding an especially strong whiff of Prokofiev. The piece is notable, however, for a stronger sense of drama than one notes in the previous works, and a less obviously American flavor. It is also structured quite tightly, so that its 9-minute duration passes by disappointingly quickly.
Featuring little known music of distinguished merit, meticulously performed and superbly recorded, this recording meets my Want List criteria, as one of the most rewarding releases of the past twelve months. I recommend it strongly and without hesitation to all enthusiasts of mid-20th-century American orchestral music—I’m tempted to offer a money-back guarantee!