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.