by Walter Simmons
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 Crux, Euphemias 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.