Kabelác: Symphony No. 8 (“Antiphons”). Two Fantasias for Organ. Four Preludes for Organ. Eight Inventions for Percussion

KABELÁCSymphony No. 8 (“Antiphons”). Two Fantasias for Organ. Four Preludes for Organ. Eight Inventions for Percussion. Pierre Stoll conducting the Choirs of the Strasbourg Municipal Theatre and Psallette; Jana Jonasova soprano; Vaclav Rabas, organ.  Les Percussions de Strasbourg PRAGA PR 255 004 [ADD]; 75:13. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)

When I wrote the fairly extensive piece on Miloslav Kabelác in the previous issue of Fanfare, I had no idea that Praga would be issuing another disc so soon. It makes no sense for me to repeat everything I wrote there, so I can only urge readers interested in this music to look back at that issue for some background information. But this disc is really a far better introduction to the music of this remarkable composer.

The entire disc is devoted to a concert that took place in Strasbourg, France, in June 1971, which I mentioned in my previous review. (In fact, it was a broadcast of that concert in New York a year or so later that first introduced me to Kabelác’s music.) The major work on that program was the Symphony No. 8, “Antiphons,” composed during the previous year especially for the occasion — indeed, with the acoustical, spatial, and symbolic characteristics of the Church of St. Paul, where the concert was to take place, in mind. The symphony is scored for soprano solo, double chorus, percussion ensemble, and organ, and proved to be one of the composer’s last works. It is based on the episode from the Book of Daniel in which a prophecy of doom appears before Belshazzar as “handwriting on the wall” in the form of three words: mene, tekel, upharsin. These words — taken to mean, “your days are numbered, you have been judged and found wanting, and your kingdom will be taken away” — constitute virtually the entire text of the work, repeated obsessively for their phonemic, as well as symbolic, value. The symphony is in five movements, separated by four brief interludes, in something of an arch design.

The musical language belongs to what we think of as the Eastern European avant-garde of that time, with much greater emphasis on dynamics, texture, gesture, timbre, and mood than on melody, harmony, which is generally cluster or unison, or rhythm, which is generally static. However, dealing almost exclusively in dynamic extremes, the expressive content of the piece is extraordinarily intense. Indeed, the solo soprano’s contribution is often crazed, bordering on hysteria. Like the work of Allan Pettersson, Kabelác’s is unabashedly music with a message — a message about the harrowing plight of humankind. But alongside Kabelác, Pettersson is an optimist.

As described in my previous review, Kabelác’s mode of expression developed along a highly idiosyncratic continuum in which profound metaphysical issues are almost always in the forefront, although his earlier music is couched in a language utilizing a more conventional tonal syntax. During the late 1950s a series of works appeared in which content and language found a particularly successful fusion. One of these is a large orchestral passacaglia called The Mystery of Time, which is probably the best single introduction toKabelác and therefore is in urgent need of recorded documentation. Dating from about the same time are the Two Fantasies for organ. Conceived tonally and harmonically, these are works of tremendous power — portentous in mood, and haunted by a sense of impassive malevolence met by an indomitable defiance. Few works for organ achieve such immediacy of effect. The Four Preludes date from 1963. Their spirit is much the same as that of theFantasies but their language is sparer and more terse.

Eight Inventions for percussion ensemble were composed in 1963 and are probablyKabelác’s best-known music, having been performed extensively throughout the world. Their success is partly attributable to their use in a ballet called The Minotaur, which has been staged often. Though representative of the composer’s general approach, they are somewhat less subjective in content, making highly imaginative and evocative use of the instrumental sonorities. There is considerable Asian flavor to this music, overt but devoid of cliché.

This is quite an important release, and highly recommended to the listener who is drawn to the sort of music described here. The disc seems to owe its existence to Pierre-E. Barbier, who appears to be attempting to carry on a mission begun by Paul Nardin, an organist who wrote a monograph on Kabelác that has yet to be published. Barbier certainly deserves credit for this effort, as until a few months ago, Kabelác’s music seemed lost to oblivion. However, his program notes — to this disc and to its predecessor — tantalize with unexplained allusions and references, and place Kabelác in contexts that seem to me to be irrelevant. I look forward to the continued development of interest around the works of this unique composer.