Kalabis: Symphonies, Concertos / Kosler, Neumann, Kalabis, Belohlavek

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"The quality of the 10 orchestral pieces assembled on the three-CD Supraphon set of Kalabis reissues has to be heard to be believed, the more...
"The quality of the 10 orchestral pieces assembled on the three-CD Supraphon set of Kalabis reissues has to be heard to be believed, the more so since the music itself is rarely encountered in the concert hall, outside the Czech Republic, at least. But these three discs have more than their fair share of masterworks. If I were coming to Kalabis’s music with innocent ears, it would take only the opening of the Second Symphony of 1959–61 to convince me that I was listening to a major symphonist. The opening Andante moderato generates a sense of powerful foreboding which is released with terrific force in the Allegro molto e drammatico that follows in what one is beginning to recognize as one of Kalabis’s typical manically striding marches. The brooding slow movement, an Andante marked molto quieto (the work was composed at the height of the Cold War) again builds up the tension, dispersed this time in a gloriously long-legged fugue which gradually expands into a gloriously dignified Finale. The First Violin Concerto (1958–59) lies somewhere between Martin? and Shostakovich, perhaps closer to the latter, and is hardly inferior to either, with a bristlingly energetic opening movement, a dark and troubled slow movement (marked angoscioso ) with spiky and assertive central section, and a buoyant but sober Finale. The first disc closes with the 13-minute Symphonic Variations for Large Orchestra (1964). If the Dvorak Symphonic Variations were more often performed, I would recommend resting that score for an occasional hearing of Kalabis’s tightly argued and absolutely unsentimental score—but even the Dvorak rarely gets a look-in these days, so I fear there’s little hope of hearing the Kalabis live, more’s the pity.

The second disc opens with the Concerto for Large Orchestra, commissioned by Karel An?erl for the Czech Philharmonic and composed in 1965–66, which begins with one of Kalabis’s fiercest dissonances, but it’s one of those dense agglomerates which suggests resolution and, sure enough, an arching violin line emerges and purifies the air and, almost before we know it, we’re off on another of Kalabis’s white-knuckle allegro s; Kalabis described the middle movement as a “tragic meditation”; and the freewheeling Finale has something of the ferocious energy of the last movement of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Sixth Symphony, though Kalabis pauses for air rather more often. In contrast to the four-movement Second, the Third Symphony is in three movements, another of Kabalis’s galloping allegro s bookended by two uneasy essays, predominantly but not always slow and, as ever, with Kalabis, powered even at moderate tempos by the sense that there’s energy in plenty waiting to be given its head. Volume 2 ends with Kalabis’s Trumpet Concerto of 1973. R?ži?ková, who provides the booklet notes for the set, explains that, exceptionally, Kalabis was allowed to accompany her on a tour of France that year and, in a little town in Provence, he was given a statuette of the town crier, whose adventures the music depicts (hence the title, “Le Tambour de Villevieille”). Cast in two movements and 18 minutes long, it moves as easily as the other works here from knockabout vigor to anxious inaction. The drums that are occasionally heard in the first movement are, briefly, more prominent in the second and sound as if they are about to set up a tattoo but the music then sets off in a different direction. I find this work slightly less personal than the other pieces on offer here, but Kalabis’s craftsmanship is as evident here as elsewhere, and there aren’t so many good trumpet concertos in the world that trumpeters can afford to ignore this one.

Kalabis’s Harpsichord Concerto, composed in 1974–75 (no prizes for guessing who the dedicatee and first performer was), has something of the buoyancy of the Poulenc Concert champêtre and the angularity of neo-Classical Stravinsky—but far more of a sense of onward drive than either composer; indeed, it’s in the driving rhythms of the Finale that Kalabis comes closest to Martin? though, unsettlingly, it then subsides into anguished silence. R?ži?ková complained to her husband, only half-joking, that “You have let me die”; but the times in which it was written, he responded, did not permit another ending. Martin? was tangentially involved in the birth of the work, as R?ži?ková relates in her notes. She was performing the Martin? Concerto in Switzerland and the conductor asked if by chance she had heard of a Czech composer called Viktor Kalabis; much laughter ensued, and a commission soon after that. But don’t expect some maudlin love-letter: Kalabis obviously wanted to show the world what she could do, and the solo part is a demanding one; the piece is almost half-an-hour in length, too, which must make it one of the world’s longer harpsichord concertos. The second work on the third, all-concerto, disc is the Second Violin Concerto of 1977–78, performed by the much-missed Josef Suk, with whom R?ži?ková formed a duo in 1963, so it is good to see him represented here and find him in stellar form. Just over a quarter-hour in length, it’s in a single movement, as are the 22-minute Concerto for Piano and Winds (1985) and the 12-and-a-half-minute Concertino for Bassoon and Winds (1983)—the most explicitly Stravinskian works in this collection. All three are tightly argued, the first two earnest and generally grave in manner, with the Concertino exploiting the capacity of the bassoon to suggest boisterous and slightly preposterous good humor, though there are also a number of passages of almost hieratic starkness.

The performances throughout make the case for the music as convincingly as you could ask. The recordings were made between 1968 and 1991 and have come up well. A few slips from the soloist in the Trumpet Concerto suggested it might be a live recording, a suspicion confirmed by the subsequent applause; a cough and the occasional noise serve the same function in the Bassoon Concertino.

Altogether, this is an excellent survey of some of the major works of one of the major voices of recent times. Taken together with the MSR box (if you do not know the Fourth Symphony, you should not let yourself live in ignorance of it much longer), it should help Kalabis’s name before a Western public, even if it’s largely the small part of it that buys recordings. Bit by bit, one hopes, some of Kalabis’s oeuvre might begin to appear in concert, where audiences will cheer it to the rafters. In the meantime, I urge you to acquire this box and do some hollering at home."

FANFARE: Martin Anderson

Product Description:

  • Release Date: February 26, 2013

  • UPC: 099925410926

  • Catalog Number: SU4109-2

  • Label: Supraphon

  • Number of Discs: 3

  • Composer: Viktor Kalabis

  • Conductor: Jirí Belohlávek, Ladislav Slovák, Milos Formacek, Milos Konvalinka, Tomas Koutnik, Václav Neumann, Viktor Kalabis, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Zdenek Kosler

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Czech Chamber Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble, Prague Chamber Orchestra, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Jiri Formacek, Josef Suk, Milan Langer, Miroslav Kejmar, Petr Skvor, Zuzana Ruzicková