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Vítězslava KAPRÁLOVÁ (1915-1940)
Complete Piano Music

Sonata Appassionata, Op.6 (1933) [18:45]
Three piano pieces, Op.9 (excerpts) (1935) [6:23]
Grotesque passacaglia (1935) [2:34]
Five piano compositions (1931-32) [13:07]
Dubnová preludia, Op.13 (April preludes) [9:06]
Variations sur le carillon de l’église St-Étienne-Du-Mont, Op.16 (1938) [7:59]
Dance for piano (1940, unpublished, reconstructed by Giorgio Koukl)* [3:11]
Dvě kytičky (Two bouquets of flowers) (1935)* [1:36]
Písnička (Little song) (1936) [1:18]
Ostinato fox (1937)* [1:06]
Slavnostní fanfare (Festive fanfare) (1940)* [0:24]
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. January/March 2016, Conservatorio Lugano, Switzerland.
* world premičre recording
GRAND PIANO GP708 [65:27]

That intrepid music ferret Giorgio Koukl has done it again! Renowned for his help in bringing to public notice works by lesser known or, in some cases, completely unknown composers and only recently having released discs of piano music by Paul le Flem and Arthur Lourié, he now turns his spotlight on a little known Czech woman composer Vítězslava Kaprálová. It shows a singular generosity of spirit to do this kind of work for deserved music, though it doubtlessly is such music that will never sell in huge quantities - more’s the pity. So thank God for such musicians who, rather than recording yet another work by Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert, give us the chance to discover real musical gems that would otherwise remain in obscurity.

It is always sad to hear of lives cut cruelly short for whatever reason, but when you are presented with such incredible talent as we are here, the loss is even more acutely felt, for Vítězslava Kaprálová died, probably from typhoid fever, at the tragically young age of 25 only two months after her marriage to Jiří Mucha, the son of Alphons Mucha. As is often the case with composers, who die young, there seems to have been some internal mechanism within them that propelled them into starting to write at an extremely young age, as if somehow they knew in their subconscious that they were not long for the world. The earliest works this disc offers us are Five piano compositions from 1931-2 composed by her between the ages of 16-17. The level of maturity shown here is simply breathtaking, demonstrating passion and pathos in equal measure. I especially appreciated the second Cantabile-moderato, which had a delightfully charming lilt to it and the fifth, the substantial Alla Marcia funčbre, is a particularly remarkable work for such a young person, who was only two years into a five year double major in composition and conducting at the conservatory in Brno, where she was born in 1915.

Only a year later in 1933, aged 18, she produced what is regarded as a major contribution to twentieth century Czech sonata literature, her Sonata appassionata opus 6. Though in two movements the second is a theme, which is then subjected to a series of six variations, a form she seems to have particularly favoured. For such a composition to be considered in those terms, when written by an 18 year old girl, who is still studying, is an absolutely astonishing achievement. The title couldn’t be more apt, for it plunges straight into a passionate declaration from the first note. This first movement at almost 8 minutes long accounts for almost half the entire work and is delivered with a heartfelt intensity that is totally absorbing. Whether knowing how little time she had left while listening to it is the cause, I don’t know, but there seemed to be a demand or a plea within it for the writer to be allowed to live while recognising she wouldn’t be. This feeling returned with the fourth and fifth variations. Each of the variations moves away further and further from the original theme, until totally obscured, leaving the final substantial variation as a kind of postlude or summing up, which is imbued with as much power as the opening movement.

Next comes what is listed as excerpts from Three piano pieces and, like me, you might be puzzled as to how a disc claiming to be the complete piano music can only include two of the three pieces; it might make you wonder as to whether the third has been lost. The answer is that track 11 Grotesque passacaglia is in fact the third of the three pieces. Why Grand Piano decided to list them that way is anyone’s guess. (Incidentally - while I know that Naxos use these rather unconnected photos or paintings on their covers, surely a more relevant and eye catching cover for this release would have been a colourful reproduction of one of Alphons Mucha’s art nouveau posters as being a Czech artist plus the father of Kaprálová’s husband Jiří). Written when she was 20, these short pieces are again remarkable for their bold and mature approach, with a muscularity about the opening Praeludium in particular, though the following Crab canon is equally forceful in its presentation. Giorgio Koukl leaves almost no gap between it and the Grotesque passacaglia which restores a feeling of homogeneity to the three pieces.

Vítězslava Kaprálová’s Dubnová preludia (April preludes) are her most frequently played and recorded works, which date from 1937, the year she graduated from the conservatory’s Master school and from where, with the aid of a grant from the French government, she left for Paris, where she studied conducting with Charles Munch and had private studies in composition from the then Paris-based Bohuslav Martinů, with whom she had an affair that would last almost until her death. It is always interesting and sometimes a mystery as to what makes particular works more popular than others; I cannot see why these preludes, delightful as they are, have proved more favoured than any of the other works on this disc, all of which are equally impressive and some of which are downright amazing. One such is the ensuing Variations sur le carillon de l’église St-Étienne-Du-Mont that Martinů was similarly impressed with and which he took a hand in having published the same year it was composed in 1938 (ignore the typo in the booklet which gives 1838). These brilliantly simple but oh, so clever variations on a peal of bells of a Paris church are totally captivating.

Giorgio Koukl is responsible for reconstructing her Dance for piano, commissioned by the great Rudolf Firkušný, one of her champions and supreme interpreters and her last ever solo piano work. Originally conceived as Two dances for piano, the second was never completed and Giorgio Koukl only had a surviving sketch to work on to produce this performing version of the dance. Once again her flair for producing works of great charm and simplicity is fully exploited in this brief but lovely little dance, heavily redolent of (probably) Moravian folk dances. In fact there are a number of times, when the Moravian folk influences come to the fore and I felt this again in her Písnička (Little song). In Ostinato fox I could hear shades of Erwin Schulhoff, although the jazzy influence in it was something that Stravinsky also used in many of his compositions and who was someone who exerted some influence on Kaprálová’s music. Her Dvě kytičky (Two bouquets of flowers) are tiny little pieces, each under a minute each that show how much impact she could cram into the smallest of time frames and that is even more ably shown in the last piece on this disc, her Slavnostní fanfare (Festive fanfare), which she composed as a present for the 12 year-old daughter of one of her benefactors in Paris and which like a firework sparkles for a brief but effective 24 seconds.

This disc was a revelation, illuminating as it does an amazing and surprising talent that burned for an altogether too brief period between the two world wars and whose conducting abilities were also recognised at the time with her becoming a real pathfinder as one of the first women conductors. Her music is brought to life with exciting clarity by Giorgio Koukl who always delivers performances designed to champion whichever composer he has turned his attention to. This is a fabulous, thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating disc of truly inspirational music and considerable thanks are due to the hard work of Karla Hartl and her organisation The Kaprálová Society (www.kapralova.org) for collecting together and publishing her music and generally ensuring she becomes as well known as she deserves to be. The website is well worth checking out for a complete discography of Kaprálová’s works.

Steve Arloff

Previous review: Rob Barnett

 

 




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