KABELÁC: Eight Preludes. Passacaglia T.G.M. Seven Pieces. Motifs from Exotic Lands

KABELÁC Eight PreludesPassacaglia T.G.M. Seven Pieces. Motifs from Exotic Lands – Daniel Wiesner (pn) – PANTON 81 9012-2 131 (79:04)

The piano seems not to have been a major vehicle for Kabelác’s creativity, as his output for that instrument was small, and consists largely of pieces that were peripheral to his main compositional concerns, while also lacking the sort of virtuoso challenges that excite the interest of most pianists. This compact disc holds most of the composer’s music for the instrument. However, Kabelác fanatics—and his is the kind of music that inspires fanaticism—will not want to miss what this portion of his oeuvre has to offer. And, indeed, one work—Eight Preludes—belongs alongside his most notable achievements.

Those listeners who have been following the gradual release (much of it comprising reissues from the LP era) of so much Kabelác on CD during the past few years will not need much encouragement. And those who have already decided that this composer is not for them will find nothing here to change their attitudes. But I am sure that there are many seeing his name here for the first time. I hate to quote extensively from previous reviews, but also realize that many will not want to bother searching through back-issues. Yet, as something of a fanatic myself, I don’t want those who might welcome this music to miss the opportunity. Therefore, I will offer a brief overview, then recommend that those so motivated turn to Fanfare 22:1 for a discussion of the most recent previous Kabelác release, and follow the paper-trail of citations given there for other recordings and discussions thereof.

During the 1950s and 60s Miloslav Kabelác (1908-1979) was 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 crackdown seemed to result in a complete disappearance of both his music and of references to it. However, during the past seven or eight years much of his music has returned to availability.

The works of Kabelác that I find most rewarding and likely to have the broadest appeal are the orchestral work entitled The Mystery of TimeTwo Fantasias for organ, Ballade for violin and piano, and, perhaps, Symphony No. 3 for organ, brass, and timpani. All of these date from 1956-57, when the composer’s voice and expressive concerns seemed to speak most eloquently. Also from that time come the Eight Preludes for piano solo. Relatively simple in texture and ease of execution, and showing little interest in the instrument’s conventional parameters of expression, they are not what is thought of as “pianistic.” But they are both fascinating and hauntingly mysterious, their modest scale and diminished textural range permitting a deeper insight into the substantive elements that make this music so strangely compelling. Each prelude creates the impression of an improvisation oriented around a particular compositional device or pattern figuration, and is identified by an Italian descriptive term, e.g., ostinato, meditativosognante, 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. These slow harmonic shifts, achieved through processes not unlike those that have become clichés in the hands of Philip Glass, achieve the sort of meditative quality found in some minimalism and the “new spiritualism,” but I find the rhythm of activity and range of affect here more to my taste. Not all the preludes are slow and soft: Some also feature perpetual-motion patterns in rapid tempos, as well as other bolder effects. But most are oriented around triadic implications. And in each case the effect of the whole is more mysterious than can be explained by mere verbal description. I simply cite No. 4, ”Preludio corale” as one unforgettable five-minute piece that is worth the full price of the CD (more about that anon).

The other works on the disc are truly peripheral or of otherwise limited appeal and might well be overlooked were not the Preludes so worthy of attention. The earliest piece on the disc—indeed, the earliest Kabalác I know—is Passacaglia T.G.M. (The initials refer to the revered Czech political leader, Tomáš G. Masaryk, to whose memory the piece was dedicated.) Completed in 1937, the 16-minute work is based on a 12-tone theme. Its tone is typically severe—typical of the form and typical of the composer—and displays his characteristic tightness of control, but it lacks the sense of cosmic mystery that surrounds his mature work. In fact, its harmonic language is a little gray and unappealing, although Kabelác considered the Passacaglia to represent an important step in his artistic development.

Seven Pieces were composed in 1946, and they are the most conventionally pianistic music on the disc. One notes suggestions of other composers—chiefly Debussy and, perhaps, Scriabin—but these are momentary reminiscences. For the most part the music reflects the unique Kabelác “sound.” Although not as deep or as conceptually focused as the Preludes, their affinity with ordinary piano styles makes them more accessible to the casual listener.

Motifs from Exotic Lands is a group of ten pieces from 1959 that Kabelác constructed around usages derived from the music of the South Sea Islands, the Middle East, Alaska, Brazil, India, Africa, et al. About half contain actual folk melodies, while the others were composed “in the style of …” Needless to say, these pieces are nothing like the pseudo-ethnic rhapsodies that homogenize exotic musical mannerisms through the conventions of mainstream European virtuoso vehicles. But neither do they heighten the implicit idiosyncratic irregularities of their sources, as found in much of Bartók, for example. No—the word here is spare. These little settings are so stripped down that virtually nothing is left but their most basic elements. True, most are very easy to play. But they are not very interesting.

The young Czech pianist Daniel Wiesner performs this music with technical mastery and sensitive artistry. His efforts are especially commendable in view of the minimal vanity-gratification provided by music such as this.

One final note: Listeners who don’t find this CD or other releases of 20th-century Czech music in their local record emporia, and assume that any further searching would entail a great deal of “hassle” might be interested to know that this and other such releases are available via the website “www.musicabona.com”. Use of a major credit-card obviates dealing with foreign currencies, and the total cost, including shipping, is less than one would expect to pay for a comparable domestic CD purchased in-store.