Kabelác: Symphony No. 5, op. 41 (“Dramatic”)’. Hamlet Improvisation, op. 46. Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 9. HANUS: Sonata-Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, op. 9.

KABELÁC: Symphony No. 5, op. 41 (“Dramatic”)’. Hamlet Improvisation, op. 46. Karel Anderl conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; with Libuse Domaninska, soprano’. PRAGA PR 255 000 [ADD]; 56:00. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)

KABELÁC: Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 9. HANUS: Sonata-Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, op. 9. Daniel Veis, cello; Helena Veisova, piano. PANTON 81 1014-2 [DDD]; 42:36. Produced by Vojtech Mojzis. (Distributed by Albany.)

As far as I know, these are the first CDs devoted to the music of the Czech composer Miloslav Kabelác (1908-79). The notes accompanying the Praga disc identify him as “the great Czech symphonist of the 20th century,” with eight works in that form. I am familiar with most of these, along with many other of his works, and have long found him to be one of the most individual and strangely compelling European composers of his generation. However, I know little about him of a historical or biographical nature, beyond the basic facts one finds in The New Grove; unfortunately, Pierre-E. Barbier’s strangely elliptical program notes for the Praga release leave many questions unanswered, while the notes for the Panton disc say virtually nothing. In 1976 I went to Prague to meet with Kabelác and found him evasive and uncommunicative to the point of paranoia. This was shortly before a brain tumor paralyzed him for three years, then killed him. Kabelác seems to have been regarded as Czechoslovakia’s leading composer during the 1960s, when many of his works appeared on Supraphon. His career culminated in a concert devoted to his music at the Strasbourg Festival in 1971, which was broadcast internationally. However, I suspect that a combination of the artistic directions in which he was moving and personal-political factors led to the suppression of his music and the obliteration of his reputation from official media of communication, so that by the mid 1970s his work seemed to have disappeared. (I would welcome hearing from any reader who can illuminate this matter.)

M. Barbier’s program notes seem at pains to place Kabelác  within the context of Mahler and Schoenberg, but such a characterization seems to me way off the mark. I hear him as much more clearly related to the grim stoicism of Shostakovich, with his somber, brooding harmonic stasis and defiant rhythmic obstinacy. However, in contrast to Shostakovich’s sprawling narrative approach, Kabelác  developed a fascination with tiny intervallic and rhythmic cells, which serve as his structural source material. Some of the resulting works appear free and improvisatory in form; others display a sort of compulsive formalism similar to Panufnik. But nearly all are characterized by a grim relentlessness prone to outbursts of violence suggestive of extreme emotional states. Perhaps his most distinctive and characteristic work is a twenty-five-minute orchestral passacaglia composed in 1957 and entitled The Mystery of Time (recorded by Karel Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic soon after it was written). During the 1960s Kabelác’s music moved farther away from traditional syntax and became more idiosyncratic, with greater angularity and dissonance. But he never abandoned the strong feeling of tonal center or the sense of emotional desperation that characterized his work throughout his career. 

The Praga release is drawn from live performances dating from the 1960s. With the Symphony No. 5, “Dramatic,” composed in 1960, it plunges the listener new to Kabelác into very deep waters, as this is one taxing piece — an expansive forty-minute work in four movements, scored for soprano vocalise and large orchestra. As with most of Kabelác, the musical language itself is based on a chromatic modality that is somewhat exotic in effect, with conjunct lines and triadic harmony. Although its four movements attempt to offer some measure of contrast and variety, the overall effect is very somber and plaintive. Furthermore, the soprano, though not required to engage in any outrageous histrionics, is never used in a conventional cantabile fashion either. Rather, she serves as an omnipresent voice of woe, to the point where the listener may be tempted to cry, “Enough!” I feel ambivalent about saying this, because Kabelác is an extremely interesting and provocative composer, and I have been eagerly awaiting a revival of his work for some time. And as is the case with the more unusual figures, even flawed works have their value and shed light on the output as a whole. This is especially true for a composer as enigmatic as Kabelác. I am not even sure I would call this work “flawed,” but it is definitely extreme, and I cannot simply recommend it without some warning. On the other hand, an awful lot of people seem to enjoy the Gorecki Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which is a natural point for comparison. The Gorecki is probably somewhat easier to take, although it is more monotonous in rhythm and dynamics, because it has a warmth and tenderness missing from the Kabelác. Gorecki sheds tears, whereas Kabelácgrits his teeth. Also, Gorecki uses the soprano more sparingly, allowing long breaks between solos. Libuse Domaninska, one of the foremost Czech sopranos of the 1950s and 60s, deserves considerable credit for negotiating this relentlessly demanding part as successfully as she does.

The Hamlet Improvisation of 1963 is, at sixteen minutes, a much tighter, more effective work, although a less conventionally structured one. Despite its title, the work seems to be fully notated, the term “improvisation” said to refer to a “feeling of independence and freedom.” Here Kabelác’s language is more terse and gestural, rather than thematic. Outbursts of angry protest in cluster harmonies that suggest Messiaen alternate with passages of eerie mystery created by consonant harmony treated in the sort of unconventional atonal manner one finds in the music of Arnold Rosner. One suspects that this piece, which won high honors when first presented in 1964 at the Prague Spring Festival, is a camouflaged statement of sociopolitical protest, as were so many Eastern European works at the time. Although the performers are the same, the rendition presented here, adequate enough, is unfortunately not the one that was issued on Supraphon during the late 1960s; alas, that one was better played and better recorded.

Kabelác’s cello sonata was written during the early 1940s and is a more classically balanced work. The main motif of the first movement anticipates the corresponding motif in Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony; the finale, deleted by the composer initially, sounds as though it was composed even earlier, as it uses a somewhat different harmonic vocabulary and seems comparatively conventional. The rest, however, displays all the earmarks of theKabelác style: a grim intensity of mood and the use of exotic scales and insistent rhythms. The performance, of recent vintage, is extremely fine.

The cello sonata of Jan Hanuš (b. 1915) is a worthy discmate to the Kabelác. It is a solid, ambitious effort, serious in tone, with a dissonant language, but an expressive approach. However, it could benefit from a clearer sense of direction and a stronger dramatic focus. Again, it is very well played by cellist Daniel Veis and his wife, pianist Helena Veisova.