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.