Vítězslava KAPRÁLOVÁ (1915-1940)
Prélude de Noël (1939) [2:03]
Vojenská symfonieta, Op 11 (1936-37) [14:41]
Smutný večer (reconstr. T. Cheek for Voice & Orchestra) (c.1936) [3:29]*
Sbohem a šáteček, Op 14 (Version for Voice & Orchestra) (1938) [5:24]
Suite en miniature, Op 1 (Version for Orchestra) (1935) [9:51]
Piano Concerto in D minor, Op 7 (1935) [23:11]
Nicholas Phan (tenor)
Amy I-Lin Cheng (piano)
University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Kiesler
rec. 2015-2016, Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA
NAXOS 8.574144 [58:57]
If it hadn’t been for her premature death in 1940 at the young age of twenty-five, Vítězslava Kaprálová would undoubtedly have become a major figure in 20th century music. Her father had been a pupil of Leoš Janáček, and guided her through her first compositional steps. Later she attended the Brno Conservatory. Future compositional teachers included Vítězslav Novák, a student of Dvořák, at the Prague Conservatory, and Bohuslav Martinů in Paris. She also spent a brief period with Nadia Boulanger. Her conducting teachers were no less impressive: Václav Talich and Charles Munch. When war broke out she found herself exiled in Paris. Tragically, two months after her marriage to journalist Jiří Mucha in 1940, she died in what was termed ‘tuberculosis miliaris’, but was most likely typhoid fever, leaving behind a substantial oeuvre of more than fifty compositions. She remained in obscurity for many years, being labeled ‘decadent’ by the communist authorities.
It’s thanks to the Kaprálová Society, founded in 1998, that her music and memory has been rekindled, by concerts, recordings and publications. In 2015, the centenary of her birth, a Kaprálová Festival was hosted at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in which most of her works were performed over a seven day period. This significant event has provided the source of these recordings, newly released by Naxos.
The Prélude de Noël which begins the disc is a two minute miniature, first broadcast to Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on Christmas eve 1939. An amalgam of Czech folk song and Czech carols, it proved popular at the time, being both tuneful and memorable. It constitutes the perfect curtain raiser.
Kaprálová made her name with her Vojenská symfonieta (Military Sinfonietta), Op 11, dating from her time at the Prague Conservatory. It became her calling card. Cast in a single movement and scored for a large orchestra it’s well-crafted and reveals a deft hand at colourful orchestration, an impressive achievement for a twenty two year old. She dedicated the work to the Czechoslovak president, Edvard Beneš. The premiere took place on 26 November 1937, with Kaprálová herself conducting the Czech Philharmonic, the first time a woman had done so. She described its bold military style in the following way: “The composition does not represent a battle cry, but it depicts the psychological need to defend that which is most sacred to the nation”. It opens with a trumpet flourish, and throughout youthful energy abounds. I found it tonally centred, contrasting combative with more insouciant and unruffled elements.
Of the two vocal items, Smutný večer translates as ‘Sad Evening’. It was only discovered in 2006, and is here receiving its world premiere. The final thirteen bars of the orchestration were missing in the manuscript, and these have been reconstructed by Timothy Cheek. It’s speculated that Kaprálová wrote the text herself; she was a talented poet. The music is laden with sadness and melancholy with horns and clarinet vividly depicting weeping. Nicholas Phan is the tenor soloist. Sbohem a šáteček, Op 14 (Waving Farewell) provides the title for the CD. It’s set to a poem, popular amongst Czech schoolchildren, by Vítězslav Nezval (1900-1958). It was originally composed for voice and piano, but the composer orchestrated it in 1938. For Kaprálová it symbolized a farewell to Czechoslovakia when she progressed to Paris for studies. Nicholas Phan’s nostalgic rendering is both evocative and ardent.
The delightful Suite en miniature, Op 1 started life as four early piano pieces, penned in 1931 when Kaprálová was 16. She orchestrated them four years later, dedicating them to the Brno Radiojournal Ensemble, who performed the premiere under the baton of Theodor Schaefer on February 7 1936 on Brno Radio. The four movements are titled Praeludium, Pastorale, Lullaby and Menuetto. They combine Slavic romanticism with French impressionism. The mystical Praeludium is scored for strings, with Pastorale’s bucolic flavours realized by woodwinds. A small orchestra with the addition of trumpet, timpani, triangle and cymbals is employed in the wistful Lullaby. The final Menuetto is joyous and radiant in its warmth
The most substantial work on the disc is the three-movement Piano Concerto in D minor, Op 7 from 1935. It was the composer’s first orchestral work. It exudes confidence, passion and exuberance. The opening movement is late-Romantic in style with sweeping melodies. The keyboard writing is virtuosic and big-boned, and the orchestration is lush and colourful. The largo exudes Slavic gloom, longing and nostalgia. The finale allows some light to enter in, with its upbeat and joyous demeanour. Influenced by the times, it sounds quite jazzy in parts. Pianist Amy I-Lin Cheng performs it with vibrant, infectious dynamism. It couldn’t be bettered.
Handsomely recorded, Kenneth Kiesler conducts the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra in convincing, invigorating and satisfying accounts which, I’m sure, will win these compelling scores many friends. A deep love and commitment to this composer conveys itself throughout. The booklet contains Czech texts and English translations of the two vocal items. I urge you to explore.