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Miloslav Kabeláč (1908-1979)
Mystery of Time, Passacaglia for orchestra, Op 31 (1953-57)
Hamlet Improvisation for orchestra, Op 46 (1962-63)
Reflections, Op 49 (1963-64)
Metamorphoses II of the oldest Czech Hymn Hospodine, pomiluj ny, for piano and orchestra, Op 58 (1979)
Miroslav Sekera (piano)
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marko Ivanović
rec 2019-2021, Studio 1, Czech Radio, Prague, Czech Republic
SUPRAPHON SU4312-2 [76]

When Supraphon released its comprehensive Karel Ančerl Gold Edition twenty or so years ago I suspect I was not the only one who recognised Miloslav Kabeláč’s epic orchestral passacaglia The Mystery of Time to be an absolute masterpiece; it was unquestionably the most accomplished of the many native Czech contemporary works to be included in the collection. Its grand sweep suited Ančerl’s style to a tee and his recording - review -remains a classic although the intervening six or so decades have done the sonics few favours, a judgement which applies equally to the account of the Hamlet Improvisation on the same disc. I have long hoped for a new recording of The Mystery of Time and Supraphon have finally delivered, courtesy of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and Marko Ivanović, evidently a devotee of Kabeláč. He had already recorded the composer’s Symphony No 4 some years ago on a mixed composer compilation for the ArcoDiva label but more significantly in 2016 he led this Prague band in what proved to be an excellent four disc survey of Kabeláč’s complete cycle of eight symphonies (Supraphon SU 4202-2) – although I must incorporate a caveat emptor in this case; in prepping this review I got the set down to play a couple of the symphonies - Supraphon have unfortunately packaged the four individual discs in plastic wallets which appear to have degraded over time and rendered the discs unplayable – further research suggests that other customers have had a similar experience. I have contacted the label in this regard and will update this review should I receive a response – streaming or downloading this terrific issue remains an option in any case.

All three couplings on the new disc have been recorded in the distant past on various Czech and Slovak labels and each reflects their author’s predilection for unusual orchestral combinations, a foible which is mirrored in the differing ensembles required for Kabeláč’s eight symphonies, only one of which (No 2, Op 15) is scored purely for a conventional symphony orchestra. I would suggest the most successful of these couplings is the work which proved to be his final word, Metamorphoses II, Op 58. It’s a strange but not unlikeable piano concerto which derives from the old Czech chorale Hospodine, pomiluj ny (Lord Have Mercy Upon Us). It builds from its gaunt, Gregorian-like theme, presented at first by stark piano and brass. This skeletal opening segment is followed by toccata machinations in the piano embedded amongst bleakly insistent string chords – a terse construction which suggests a premonition of Henryk Górecki's motoric, miniature Harpsichord Concerto of 1980. The third number is a piano soliloquy which hints at something lighter and neo-impressionistic, although the textures thicken in the next section- here Kabeláč eschews the orchestra entirely. These diffuse miniatures only really begin to cohere in the listener’s mind in the concluding two panels, a gentle and colourfully orchestrated bell-drenched nocturne which yields to a finale in which the hymn tune comes dramatically to life. Miroslav Sekera proves a worthy interpreter of the eccentric piano part. The recording only really comes to life in the atmospheric fifth movement.

Kabelac’s Reflections, Op 49, is a sequence of nine orchestral miniatures which range in mood from brass and percussion dominated dissonant bombast (Nos 1, 3 and 5), via Messiaen- like astringency (No 2, at three minutes the longest piece), and mathematically determined aphorism (No 4, with its shimmering piano, tart woodwind solos and autumnal strings), No 8 is a quirky toccata which comes to an abrupt halt just as it gets going whilst the concluding Reflection is a mysterious epilogue which incorporates a touching melody from one of the composer’s choruses for male voices. Well played and recorded as the sequence is, it barely hangs together as a whole.

Reflections followed hot on the heels of the Hamlet Improvisation, Op 46 of 1963, another rather abrasive work in which Kabeláč was able to momentarily take advantage of the brief window for creative experimentation which opened up prior to the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968. Intrigued as he was by the ambiguities of Shakespeare’s immortal character, the composer’s justification for the work’s title and form is quoted In Jaroslav Mihule’s concise booklet note: “[The piece is] an ‘improvisation’ [where] one thing, even one musical thing, is constantly being split into two in a landscape of contradictory variants heard consecutively,….in extremely contradictory melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, temporal, dynamic, and colouristic variants…. that is where the title ‘Improvisation’ comes from: [a] resulting impression, i.e. improvisation as life in a single, precisely determined order”. It’s an apt description – the strange drum tattoo and fanfare at its outset yields to an anxious yet impassioned solo violin over a terse backcloth of organ and strings. What follows is a procession of episodes whose juxtaposition is designed to project both cognitive and sonic dissonance. It’s an effective piece which begins to make more sense after a few listens. Ivanović’s clinically prepared and superbly executed account surpasses Ančerl in terms of its interpretative logic and superior sound.

But the overriding raison d'ętre of the current release is inevitably the new account of The Mystery of Time, surely Kabeláč’s crowning achievement. Composed during the mid-1950s, its title seems to be deliberately abstract in an attempt to cause minimum offence to the Czech authorities’ culture police who were active at the time. It is a monumental arch of orchestral sound which starts modestly with a gentle (crotchet = 60?) pulse and tiny, repeated two or three note fragments of the chorale around which the work spins. Its progress is as gradual and subtle as it is inexorable. The pulse continues implacably throughout the work’s duration. It builds to a glorious apex of orchestral power which is manages to be simultaneously discomfiting and consoling. The idea of marking time pervades the whole span – it’s omnipresent yet not always obvious. The textures are woven so skilfully that it’s truly difficult for the listener to absorb everything at once – the genius of the work becomes clearer with each new encounter. It exudes an astronomical significance of which the listener is aware but whose magnitude remains entirely elusive. Having reached its zenith at roughly two thirds through the work’s duration (classic Golden Section?) the piece wearily begins to contract and return to its starting point. I suspect that many experienced newcomers to this 1951 work will be aghast at its neglect. As a commentary on the world we are currently facing it is as apposite as it is profound.

I can report that Ivanović’s reading proves well worth the wait. The playing of his Prague orchestra is precise and uncommonly committed. The recording is detailed and ideally balanced, if a tad dry – I would have liked a little more air around the solo flute and violin passages which play a pivotal part in the structure of this mighty work. They are most movingly delivered by the Prague orchestra’s principals at least. This fresh recording finally allows the listener to appreciate the scope of Kabeláč’s ambition in this work and the mastery of his orchestration.

The Mystery of Time should surely be a repertoire staple. It is most encouraging to note therefore that in recent years has been taken up by the redoubtable conductor Jakub Hrůša who led a memorable performance in 2018 with the Philharmonia in the Royal Festival Hall which was also broadcast on Radio 3. His eloquent introduction to the work is available on YouTube, as is a Finnish TV film of his thrilling live account with the Finnish National Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded four years earlier - YouTube. Any doubts about the stature of the work are surely dispelled on seeing the commitment of the Finnish players in this reading – it is etched upon their faces from first note to last.

Richard Hanlon

Published: October 25, 2022

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