Notes and Editorial Reviews
This set of rare recordings of rewarding music is marked as a limited authorised edition so do run it to ground before it disappears.3453480.az_KALABIS_Piano_Concerto_1.html
Piano Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5;
2 Worlds; Chamber Music for Strings
; Divertimento for Wind Quartet; String Quartet No. 2; Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord; Piano Trio; Trombone Sonata; Canonic Inventions
Zuzana R?ži?ková (pn, hpd); Josef Suk (vn); Ji?í B?lohlávek, Zden?k Ko?ler, Václav Neumann, Karel ?ejna, cond; Czech PO; Václav Neumann, cond; Prague Ch Soloists; Czech P Wind Qnt; Vlach Str Qrt; Suk Trio; Zden?k Pulec (tbn); Jan Vrána (pn)
MSR MS1350 (3 CDs: 200:19)
Viktor Kalabis (1923–2006) survived the buffeting he received from Czech musico-political functionaries long enough to enjoy post-1989 freedoms. And yet, even then, when after “rehabilitation” he was offered the prestigious position of the head of the music department of Czechoslovak Radio, he refused the invitation. Instead, while still composing, he preferred to rebuild the Martin? Foundation and Institute, where he was the president from 1990 to 2003. For Kalabis was a man of trenchant honesty, whose fate mirrored that of thousands of his compatriots and whose creative impulses would not be stifled or deflected. He was born in Eastern Bohemia, and studied at Prague Conservatory and at the city’s Academy of Performing Arts and Charles University. But in 1948 the political climate abruptly changed. His doctorate, on Stravinsky and Bartók, was refused; the “decadent formalists” were unacceptable to the authorities. After marriage to Zuzana R?ži?ková, Kalabis took a job as producer in the children’s department on Czechoslovak Radio, a position he held for more than 20 years.
Fortunately, recordings were made of his music, and these—spanning the years 1956 to 1984—form the basis of this three-CD box. It covers a wide range of his compositions, from symphonic to a work for solo harpsichord, and allows one to view him “in the round.” The First Piano Concerto was written in 1954 and recorded three years later. R?ži?ková, internationally admired as a harpsichordist, is the piano soloist, a role few will be aware she performed, while ?ejna conducts the Czech Philharmonic in 1957. The concerto was Kalabis’s wedding gift to his wife, and its lighthearted profile is enhanced by Martin?-derived effulgence and, in the slow movement, a slightly pawky profile reminiscent of Prokofiev. In the finale, by contrast, we find vivid loquacity adorned by chatty wind writing and a piano part teeming with verve.
The Fourth Symphony (1972) is a two-movement work that presents a very different perspective. Intense and powerfully brooding, it embraces chamber-sized filigree alongside the rugged, purposeful rhetoric. In the second movement there are adamantine brass blocks and march passages but also the glimmer of a chorale (a chorale in the much earlier First Symphony led to its being banned), which is quietly relinquished. Later one finds urgency and anxiety, stressed by the terse brass, high wind, and percussion writing. No punches are pulled here. Maybe, though not a direct source, something of the power of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony lies behind Kalabis’s Fourth. Ko?ler conducts with trenchant control.
The ballet music for
(from 1980, and conducted by B?lohlávek in 1984) ends the first disc in a wholly more genial spirit. This is full of verve and color, propulsive rhythmic bite, and a neoclassical element into the bargain. There’s a Stravinskian basis to the rhythm, a Martin? basis to the tonal richness, texture, and Czech accent.
The second disc mixes and matches programmatically even more widely. The Fifth Symphony, subtitled “Fragment” and written in 1976, is a brilliant study in motor energy. It lasts a quarter of an hour in this performance, by the Czech Philharmonic and Václav Neumann, and is an object lesson in the successful control of texture and the unleashing of rhythmic impetus. One thing that recurs throughout his symphonic music is an ability to move convincingly from terse athletic writing to the use of translucent textures, maybe another Martin? inheritance; one thinks of the latter’s Fourth Piano Concerto or Sixth Symphony, for example. The
Chamber Music for Strings
(Prague Chamber Soloists directed by Neumann) fuses stalking figures with neoclassical elements, unease with almost frolicsome release—the central Allegro vivo is a template of these apparently dichotomous elements in his compositions being, in reality, perfectly balanced. Kalabis honored the august lineage of Czech wind playing in his Divertimento for Wind Quintet, here played by the Wind Quintet of the Czech Philharmonic, among whom we find the superb clarinetist Vladimir ?íha and flutist Géza Novák. This genial and engaging work is cast in five movements, hinting at Martin??s wind works, and deliciously syncopated in places. It’s brilliantly played, needless to say. Another elite group tackles the Second String Quartet, namely the Vlach. Kalabis wrote seven quartets in all, but this compact work, dedicated to his dying father, carries a real emotive charge. Two slow movements frame a restless central one, though here Kalabis intensifies the contrasts by writing a powerful
Andante molto quieto
section. This deeply moving work reaches its natural direction in the finale, a sustained Epilogue, an Adagio of gravity, eloquence and deep humanity.
The final disc is somewhat heterogeneous, but that only intensifies the interest. The six Two-Voice Canonic Inventions for harpsichord owe their genesis to Kalabis’s admiration for Bach and Scarlatti. Whether crystalline and exciting or noble—but not grandiloquent—they are perfectly sculpted and never evince the slightest tremor of baroquerie. From 1967 comes the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord, played by the established duo of Josef Suk and R?ži?ková. The sonata is one of equals, the harpsichord resisting subservience, and the ethos is summed up best in the Andante; intense, and intensely vibrated by Suk, it takes the violin sorrowfully high. Despite the sonorities, this sonata doesn’t suggest a Baroque sonata in the least, and though the finale evinces a rather brittle determinism it ends harmoniously, warmly, and without undue panache. The Piano Trio, played by Suk and his colleagues Josef Chuchro and Jan Panenka, is sinewy and intense and avoids all gestural mannerism; concentrated fine writing instead is the mark of the work. And the Trombone Sonata (1970) manages to embrace volubility and some genuinely relaxed and lovely lyric writing, too.
The recording quality of these 11 works obviously varies according to time and location, though it’s never less than good, and has been finely remastered. I was surprised to see this collection on MSR Classics and, despite an unnecessary and illogical dig at communist recording technology in the notes, I am delighted in the extreme by their commitment to Kalabis’s cause. The works are all apparently making their first appearance on CD, which is reason enough for thanks, and the booklet has some attractive photographs and helpful notes.
Kalabis is not at all forbidding as a composer. He is staunch and powerful, but embraces vitality and color. He has been handsomely served by this release.
FANFARE: Jonathan Woolf
If you are at all familiar with the LP production of the then Czechoslovak company Supraphon you will know the name of this composer and of Zuzana Ruzickova. That said I had no idea that there were so many Kalabis Supraphon recordings. This is presumably everything? I also had no inkling that Ruzickova, whose name I know from recordings as a harpsichordist, was also a pianist or that she had been a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen. Kalabis met her in 1951 and they were married in 1954. The Piano Concerto No. 1 was the composer's wedding gift to Ruzickova in 1954. She continues the promotion of Kalabis through the Kalabis Foundations in the USA and the Czech Republic.
Kalabis wrote five symphonies, two violin concertos, as well as concertos for trumpet and harpsichord. There are seven string quartets (I would very much like to hear those) the same number achieved by Martinu, a composer whose music he worked for indefatigably as President of the Martinu Foundation and Institute between 1990 and 2003.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 is a bright-eyed romantic piece, very tuneful and brilliant yet with, youth heart and wit. One might very loosely group this delightful work with the piano concertos of Kabalevsky and the second Shostakovich.
Recorded in a resonant acoustic the two movement Fourth Symphony is a different proposition. It broods with towering intensity and even the composer's many excursions into chamber and soloistic episodes here have a toughness about them. The glowingly warm wattage of the violins of 2:40 forwards in the first movement offers some relief - a transformation of the initial callous ideas. Brilliance, but again some hardness, overarches the fast-pulsed violins of the second movement which is more explosive: freighted with torment as well as tenderness. The final shudderingly violent pages have the edgy energy of William Schuman. The symphony was commissioned by the Dresden Staatskapelle for their 425th anniversary where it was conducted by Herbert Blomstedt in pre-Perestroika days.
Two Worlds is based on a Lewis Carroll's
Alice in Wonderland. There's more than a touch of Martinu about this score with occasional invasions from Stravinsky. It's a grown-up score with clamorous and sometimes jazzy tendencies and some translucently fantastic chamber-style writing. The second movement conjures up, with a different accent, the same diaphanously fairytale fantasy that we hear in Ravel's
ère l'Oye. The presence of orchestral piano amid this glimmering skein of sound again emphasises the Martinu affinity. This 1980 television ballet seems to have done well in both the USA and the Republic.
The Fifth Symphony is in a single formidable fifteen minute movement. Once again the rushing athletic music of William Schuman comes to mind right at the start. This is in combination with the furies buzzing away like a frenzied variant of the insect noises at the start of Martinu's
Fantaisies Symphoniques. Nothng neo-classical about this. After this the music retreats into a sometimes haunted spectral world shaken by outbreaks of violence.
The Chamber Music for strings is played by the commissioners: the Prague Chamber Soloists directed by Vaclav Neumann. This is another Kalabis string orchestra work which manages to combine tenderness with dark-clouded occlusion. It comprises a fairly austere
allegro vivo book-ended by two slower movements ending in an understated tenderness from the sighing viola and soft-breathing violins.
The Wind Quintet of the Czech Phil play the 1952
Divertimento. It would play nicely alongside the Mozart quintet. Delightfully innocent music-making, pastoral accents and full of original touches.
The Second Quartet is played by the great Vlach Quartet. John Solum (surely the same person as the same accomplished flautist recorded by EMI in the 1970s in the Arnold flute concertos) in his invaluable and sympathetic notes (fashioned from commentary by Ruzickova) tells us that this work was written the shadow of the impending death of Kalabis's father who is also the dedicatee of this three movement work. It's an unsurprisingly spiky, unforgiving work, raging against the darkness, with little tenderness until we reach the finale -
Epilogue: Adagio. This is memorably poignant with its Bergian moonlight, trembling intimacy and arpeggiated ostinato.
Praga have recorded all the quartets on two CDs – another cycle I would like to review here:-
Complete String Quartets 1-7. Kocian Quartet, Zemlinsky Quartet
CD 1 String Quartets No. 1, Op. 6 (1949); No. 2, Op. 19 (1962); No. 3, Op. 48 (1977)
CD 2 String Quartets No. 4, Op. 62 (1983-4) “Tribute to J.S.Bach”, in one movement; No. 5, Op. 63 (1984), “In memory of Marc Chagall’; No. 6, Op. 68 (1987-8), in memory of Bohuslav Martinu; No. 7, Op. 76 (1993), in one movement
Praga PRD 250 262-1 and PRD 250 262-2
The third CD is entirely of chamber music.
The Six two-voice Harpsichord Inventions are from 1962. These are good-hearted life-enhancing miniatures written for and dedicated to Ruzickova. They are said to have been inspired by Bach's duets and by the works of Domenico Scarlatti. Kalabis contrives to avoid any sense of pastiche or the archaic. The music is very brilliant and full of character. For some reason it reminded me of those imported Czech children's adventures of which the best was
The Singing Ringing Tree, shown on British television in the 1960s.
The Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord is not in the least neo-Baroque despite the instrumentation. It is played by Ruzickova and Josef Suk who took it to concerts all over the world. This 1967 work plays for just over fifteen minutes. It is passionate, emotionally tumultuous and seriously impassioned as are the two symphonies included here.
The 1974 Piano Trio is played by the elite of the Czech musical aristocracy: Panenka, Suk and Chuchro. It's in three movements. Once again it's succinct - all done and dusted in about quarter of an hour. There's a pierrot moonscape at the centre and a metamorphosis of the Furiant for the finale. Its passion reminded me a little of John Ireland yet with Stravinskian accents.
We end in the quirky company of the two movement Trombone Sonata of 1970, a sort of serenade with nobility mingled among the chivalric song.
By the way I am not sure why the otherwise admirable note-writer correlates poor audio-technical engineering with the Communist regime. In any event, as he says, the recordings are allowing for age in good heart and even the oldest (Concerto and Quintet) sound clear, detailed and vivid. Perhaps the 1970s orchestral works sound shriller than they might in the violins. To associate politics with engineering performance is as misplaced as linking the quality of a composer's output with the Communism of the regime in which he works. In any event it should be noted that Kalabis despite his brave dissent achieved far more recordings under that regime than the overt Communists Alan Bush and Alfred Corum (awaiting discovery) did in the UK under a different political system.
It should be noted that there is a Supraphon CD dedicated to three of Kalabis's orchestral works.
This collection would never have been possible without the cooperation of Supraphon and the commitment of The Viktor Kalabis and Zuzana Ruzickova foundations in the Czech Republic and in the USA.
This admirable boxed set is further distinguished by a wonderful 1960 photo of Ruzickova (my mother had those ‘Dame Edna’ winged spectacles too!) and Kalabis in the shadow of Prague Castle. The smiling portrait of the couple in their sixties can be found on the back page. The inside back cover of the triple case has a portrait of the couple with Rafael Kubelik.
This set is marked as a ‘limited authorised edition’ so do run it to ground before it disappears. I hope that MSR will be able to repeat the experiment with other Czech composers of the era: Kabelac, Jezek, Vycpalek, Pauer, Dobias, Hanus and Burghauser.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International