KABELÁC: The Mystery of Time. Hamlet Improvisation. JANACEK: Glagolltlc Mass.

KABELÁC: The Mystery of Time. Hamlet Improvisation. JANÁCEK: Glagolltlc Mass.Karel Ancerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Libuse Domaninska soprano; Vera Soukupová alto; Beno Blachut, tenor; Eduard Haken, bass; Jaroslav Vodrázka, organ; Czech Philharmonic Chorus. SUPRAPHON 11 1930-2 911 [AAD]; 78:25. Produced by Miloslav Kuba, Eduard Herzog, Mirolav Venhoda. (Distributed by Koch International.)

Miloslav Kabelác (1908-79), a highly original and individual musical thinker, enjoyed considerable renown during the 1950s and 60s as the leading Czech composer of his generation. However, around 1970 he apparently offended the powers that were, and his many recordings and publications disappeared. Now, after more than two decades  of what seemed to be total obliteration, KabeIác’s music has, during the past year, made its first appearances on CD, mostly with reissue of broadcast performances from his period of prominence. For comment on those releases, together with further background information, see Fanfare 17:2, pp. 280-81, and 17:3, pp. 214-15. In both those reviews I cited The Mystery of Time as perhaps KabeIác’s most distinctive and compelling work, in urgent need of representation on disc. And now its sole previous recording returns to the catalog, bringing to eight the number of works by this composer currently available, although only one is a newly recorded performance.

The Mystery of Time, composed in 1957, is a work of tremendous power and originality. In some ways it is comparable to the Sinfonia Sacra of Andrzej Panufnik, although its aesthetic impact is quite different. But it shares with the Polish work a number of characteristics, among them a ready accessibility, despite the renunciation of most traditional formal and harmonic procedures, and of the sophisticated nuances, embellishments, qualifications, and other devices associated with “expressive” music. There is little sense of vulnerable humanity in Kabelác’s music — of a subjective point of view. Rather, it seems to suggest an impersonal landscape, governed by a supreme order far removed from the judgments or concerns of living creatures. The Mystery of Time represents Kabelác’s unusual metaphysical attitude in its most fully and successfully realized manifestation, conjuring the vast expanse of time that stretches from the infinite past to the infinite future, its unwavering forward momentum suggesting the inexorable motion of the heavenly bodies. The form has been described as a sort of passacaglia, but only in a loose sense: It is not based on contrapuntal development over a recurring bass line, but it does involve a gradual accumulation of energy through the evolving development of simple motivic elements. The work begins with an ominous murmur strongly reminiscent of the opening of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony (which dates from the same year), with regard to both mood and actual content. Basic, elemental intervallic material is introduced into a static void, slowly building momentum through a process of imperceptibly altered repetition that must be described as proto-Minimalist. The effect suggests the implacable passage of time viewed from the perspective of a dispassionate eternal consciousness. With great deliberateness the twenty-five-minute work gradually builds in intensity through motivic metamorphosis and interlayered levels of rhythmic acceleration in a grim, inexorable crescendo that eventually culminates in a revelatory cosmic orgasm, before finally returning to the static void.

Karel Ancerl was a close friend of Kabelác and a consistent champion of his music, introducing The Mystery of Time throughout Europe and even in the United States. This recording dates from 1960, and the performance is sympathetically conceived and solidly executed. Of course, a new recording, in modem sonics, would be most welcome, but this reissue provides a valuable opportunity to discover one of the most unforgettable European works of the mid-twentieth century. 

Hamlet Improvisation was composed in 1963 and represents a later development in Kabelác’s musical language — more terse, angular, dissonant, and gestural — but with much the same underlying metaphysical outlook. The title is enigmatic, as the work has no improvisational elements and its connection with Shakespeare’s play or the hero thereof is tenuous at best. The composer’s own explanation suggests the obfuscatory philosophical doubletalk that passed for musical commentary in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period. However, the piece, in which angry, dissonant passages alternate with moments of eerie mystery, might have been less misleadingly entitled Contrasts for Orchestra or some such. It make a strong impact as an abstract statement and is another of Kabelác’s most important works. This is music of far greater competence and depth than that of other figures from Eastern Europe who have momentarily seized the popular fancy.

With Hamlet Improvisation we have the unlikely case of two currently available recorded performances, each conducted by Ancerl. The other recording (Praga PR 255 000) is taken from a live performance in 1966; this new Supraphon reissue is from a studio recording made the same year and is much better.

I cannot agree with several of my colleagues that Janácek’s 1926 Glagolitic Mass is one of the half-dozen greatest chorus-with-orchestra pieces of this century (Fanfare 6:1; 10:3), although its self-conscious attempt to create an authentically Slavic expression of the Mass, without the trappings of the various mainstream choral traditions, is certainly successful. But as a listening experience it has never touched me deeply. The performance offered here dates from 1963 and was the recipient of a number of awards at the time of its release. As fine and idiomatic as it is, however, more modern performances, such as that led by Charles Mackerras (also on Supraphon), have been highly praised in these pages.