KABELÁC: Fated Dramas of Man. Eight Inventions. Eight Ricercari

KABELÁC  Fated Dramas of Man. Eight Inventions.  Eight Ricercari – Alfréd Strejcek (spkr); Miroslav Kejmar (tpt); Frantisek Maxián (pn); Vladimir Vlasák (perc); Prague Percussion Ensemble; Vladimir Vlasák (cond) Ÿ PANTON 81 1146-2931 (64:00)

I  have been fascinated with the music of Miloslav Kabelác since the early 1970s, but only for the last four years or so has his music been available in this country on recordings. During these years, about six compact discs have been released, some newly recorded, but most of them reissues from LPs suppressed after 1968, when the composer apparently fell from favor with the powers-that-were. The appearance of these recent discs has provided me with ample opportunity to describe Kabelác’s unique musical language and my reaction to it. I direct interested readers to those reviews in Fanfare 17:2, 17:3, 18:2, and 20:1. (Unfortunately, I have seen very little English-language commentary on Kabelác other than my own, leaving me wondering how other listeners react to music so extreme in its expression.)                                                                     

For those who lack the inclination to pore through back issues, here is a brief summary:  Miloslav Kabelác (1908-1979) was generally regarded as the leading Czech composer of his generation. Over the course of eight symphonies and other major works, his music evolved from a grim, starkly militant expression with firm — even blatant —  tonal centers, sometimes reminiscent of Shostakovich, through a wide-ranging if highly idiosyncratic adaptation of more modernist techniques, such as serialism, aleatoric  procedures, and the amotivic use of gestures and textures found in the works of  Ligeti and Penderecki. But virtually all of Kabelác’s music is unified by a grim, relentless sense of fatalism and cosmic brutality. Though his music was recorded and performed widely throughout Eastern Europe during the “Prague Spring” of the 1960s, the 1968 crack-down seemed to result in a complete disappearance both of his music and of references to it.

The music on this recent, newly-recorded CD all dates from Kabelác’s  later years. Eight Inventions for percussion ensemble dates from 1962 and is the composer’s most frequently performed work; this is at least its second recorded performance. Eight Ricercari followed five years later, its composition perhaps encouraged by the success of the earlier group. Both are quite engaging and imaginative collections, notable for a wider and more varied expressive range than the composer’s norm. The two groups are undeniably similar to each other, although the Inventions display a greater orientation around melodic and tonal elements, while the Ricercari emphasize gestural and timbral features. The Ricercari may be played in any sequence, according to the preference of the performers.

Percussion music is usually an acquired taste — and a taste that few, aside from percussionists, acquire. Yet despite the spareness of their sensual appeal, these sketches display an inexhaustible variety of contrasting moods, rates of activity, and types of rhythmic motion, while retaining a consistent attitude and vision, placing them far above the vast majority of music for this medium. The Prague Percussion Ensemble performs both works with stunning virtuosity.

Fated Dramas of Man brings us to the final phase of Kabelác’s creative career, and those familiar with such other late works as Euphemias Mysterion and the Symphony No. 8, “Antiphons” will have some idea what to expect. Toward the end of his life, whatever pressing metaphysical message underlay the composer’s previous works finally came to dominate the entire experience, as purely musical structures seemed to recede in importance and extramusical intentions assumed increasingly prominent and explicit roles. Composed during 1975-76, Fated Dramas of Man is subtitled Sonata for Speaker, Trumpet, Piano, and Percussion. Twenty minutes in duration, it comprises four movements, separated from each other by three spoken interludes. The spoken portions include Biblical texts and quotations from Hamlet, while the music itself is based on material taken from previous works of Kabelác. The fact that the speaker dominates all four movements, as well as the interludes, and that it is all in Czech, might be discouraging to the English-speaking listener. But, as in the two other late works mentioned above, Kabelác extracts just a few verbal fragments from these sources and manipulates them as phonetic elements, rather than treating them as literary excerpts. Much of the musical material consists of simple motifs with modal twists and dissonant cluster-like chords. The overall effect is quite stark and terrifying in a way that somehow seems too primal to describe in words.

The quality of performances and — especially — recorded sound on this Panton disc are superior enough to warrant special mention. However, because of the extreme nature of the music, listeners who have yet to discover the music of Kabelác are advised to pass up this disc in favor of either Supraphon 11 1930-2 911, which features the composer’s single most impressive orchestral work, The Mystery of Time, along with the Hamlet Improvisation (and Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass) or Praga PR 255 004, which offers the Eighth Symphony, the percussion Inventions, and several fascinating organ works. Listeners who have sampled Kabelác and were not pleased are not likely to find these works any better. But those who know and appreciate what Kabelác was about will find this disc indispensable.