The performer list for this special anniversary edition of Viktor Kalabis's orchestral music reads like a who's who of twentieth century Czech music, and so it should: Kalabis is one of that region's greatest composers. Like many in these musically ignorant times, he still awaits wider recognition, and may never get it - but meanwhile, anyone with even the slightest interest in twentieth-century music should acquire this star-studded triple-CD from Supraphon, released to mark the 90th anniversary of the composer's birth. It is also available at some outlets with a different cover, a head-shot of the composer covering the lower half.
The booklet gives the composition dates of the opening Symphony no.2 as listed here, but the Kalabis Foundation has 1961-2. Apparently, Sergiu Celibidache described this work as "one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century". That is certainly going too far, but it is a thrilling work nevertheless, and as a plea for peace at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it transmits a powerful message. Another 1980s recording follows, the Szymanowskian Violin Concerto no.1 conducted by Kalabis himself and incorporating some very listener-friendly twelve-tone material. Then it is back to the Sixties for the typically philosophical Symphonic Variations, commissioned by, dedicated to and here performed with his usual illumination by Václav Neumann. Audio quality is down a notch from the first two works, but still impressive. Indeed, given that this and three other tracks originate in the 1970s or earlier, recording quality is bound to vary, yet Supraphon do not have a reputation for excellent sound for nothing, and all tracks have been digitally re-mastered to a very high standard for this release. The audio range on offer is from 'good' upwards, the early recordings putting many modern ones to shame for depth and clarity.
The second CD opens with another vintage recording, of the four-movement multi-faceted Concerto op.25, a virtuosic workout for orchestra commissioned by another great champion of Czech music, Karel Ancerl, for his Czech Philharmonic. Their fine performance here is conducted by Ladislav Slovák. Another big, fairly similar work, the Third Symphony, follows, the Czech Philharmonic ably steered by a young Jirí Belohlávek, who, as the CzPO's new assistant conductor, gave the premiere. Sound is probably at its thinnest here, but forty years later there are plenty of labels whose orchestral recordings still do not come up to this standard.
In these expansive orchestral works Kalabis may be likened for reference to Shostakovich, albeit more thoroughgoingly serious, without the latter's sarcasm. Martinu is perhaps a more appropriate comparison overall. The remaining items are all concertante works of one sort or another, beginning with the bitter-sweet Trumpet Concerto, in a live recording of the premiere captured in very vivid sound - especially the soloist. The booklet contradicts itself with regard to the date of recording/premiere, given as 1976 in the technical information but 1986 in the notes on the work. The applause at the end is strangely muted.
The final CD starts with Kalabis's expansive Harpsichord Concerto, with his celebrated wife as soloist. It is virtuosic of course, with the harpsichord frequently conveying the substance all on its own. It is also typically darksome, a product both of Cold War tension and Kalabis's pessimistic view of humanity. It is also without doubt one of the best concertos for harpsichord of the twentieth century. Ružicková is the subject of another recent Supraphon double-disc, released last year to mark her 85th birthday, aptly titled 'Hommage ŕ Zuzana Ružicková' (SU 4117-2). As well as pieces by Bach and Scarlatti, and some of the other great harpsichord concertos of the twentieth century - Falla, Martinu, Poulenc - she performs her husband's own Six Canonic Inventions op.20.
Back to the present recording, the following one-movement Second Violin Concerto was described by Kalabis himself as "a kind of replica of the first". It is dedicated to, and here given a commanding performance by, the legendary Josef Suk, in the second of two live recordings in this musical florilegium.
Rounding off are two more concertos, though of a somewhat more intimate nature, both being scored for solo instrument and winds. Someone coughs during the Bassoon Concertino, not listed as being a live recording, and score pages can be heard being turned over - an indication of how close up the sound is. That doubtless adds to the cosiness, however, certainly compared to the more spacious sound of the piano work. One thing the performances do have in common is the fact that soloists and ensembles are on top form.
It is easy to be cynical about the communist regime Kalabis and his wife spent their most productive years under, especially the countless petty obstacles their careers met with because they refused to join the communist party. Yet there is no doubting the quality of all these musicians, Supraphon's original engineering or Kalabis's profound, stirring music.
The booklet notes, in English, German, French and Czech, give an interesting insight into the works' evolution, and there are a few tantalising photos from the archives showing Kalabis with various top musicians. A couple of years ago, by arrangement with Supraphon, MSR Classics released a similar three-disc Kalabis monograph, mixing orchestral music with several important chamber works (MS1350, review
). This new Supraphon release is an ideal companion, but any music lover currently Kalabisless should get it at all costs - although it is actually cheap. You can read a selection of other Kalabis reviews
on MusicWeb International.
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