The Star of David flutters, recognisable but distorted and fractured, on
the cover of Supraphon's booklet. Inside are four works by composers whose
lives were each fractured or ended in the Second World War.
Rudolf Karel was one of Dvorák's last pupils at the National
Conservatoire in Prague. Much of his life anticipates the trajectory of those
of his fellow composers here; caught in Russia in the First World War he
spent his years there in the Information Division of the Austro-Hungarian,
later Czechoslovak, force. Returning home he became a professor of composition
at his old conservatoire and began a series of adventurous works, somewhat
austere, polyphonic and Regerian, which later softened into a more simplified
Karel was imprisoned for resistance activities in 1943 and eventually transferred
to Terezin in February 1945, where he died the following month. Supraphon's
notes are exceptionally unhelpful, telling us next to nothing about any of
the works and giving a bare minimum of biographical information and so the
textual complexities surrounding Karel's Nonet are nowhere addressed. As
I understand it the Nonet was composed between January and February 1945
in the most distressing circumstances and left incomplete after Karel's death
from dysentery on 6 March 1945. Frantisek Hertl completed the Nonet's
instrumentation for a first performance on 21 December 1945. Many years later
Vaclav Snitl completed a new orchestration, in 1984, for a performance by
the Czech Nonet in 1985. I can only assume that it is Snitl's edition that
is played on this disc.
The work itself shows few overt signs of its terrible compositional history
and one can only wonder at the sixty-five year old composer's fortitude.
Karel integrates the string and wind quintets with practised skill; magically
he allows the violin to cut through the instrumentation in the Andante
in a passionate reflection tinged with intimations of regret. In the
opening movement he makes great play of affecting string writing alternating
with exposed horn and clarinet passages. The third movement begins as a Czech
dance, led by the upper voices, the horn and bassoon underpinning the texture.
A reminiscence of the first movement leads towards a rather staccato but
not inappropriate conclusion.
Never over-emphatic, neither raging nor despairing, this is a work of almost
heroic simplicity; a composer knowing himself to be at the end of his life,
looking back through the complexities of his compositional middle-period
to his radiant uncomplicated youth.
Stepan Lucky was born in Zilina in 1919 into what was then newly
independent Czechoslovakia and what is now Slovakia. As with Karel, Lucky
was active in the resistance - and in the Slovak Uprising of 1944 - and was
sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. After the War he studied with Ridky and
Haba and began a career as a forward-thinking composer before emerging as
one of the Republic's leading film composers. The Divertimento dates from
1974 and with its busy clarinet and flute writing it wears a rather puckish
Prokofiev-like cut; a very folkish clarinet episode leads to the now pliant
clarinet being joined by oboe and flute as they gently end the alla marcia.
Lucky writes a rather crepuscular slow movement and a light-but-involved
scherzo finale. This is a short but welcome addition to the repertoire
and written in the best traditions of Czech and Slovak wind writing.
Haas and Klein are the best known of the composers and we can
judge their works with a certain objective detachment because the op. 10
Quintet of Haas dates from 1929 and the Klein, though written in 1940,
precedes his incarceration in Terezin. Haas's piece is deliciously witty.
Beginning with a rather insistent rising and falling theme with chirping
runs and brilliant French horn writing it discloses an increasingly expressive
Preghiera which flirts with Stravinsky. The Balo eccentrico is
just that with an impish dance and thwarted attempts to lyricise the theme
- a delightfully witty exhausted slumping signals the effort involved. The
finale is clear-eyed, somewhat stern and withdrawn before opening
out fully into a neo-baroque conclusion tinged with chromaticism. Throughout,
something of Janacek's influence can be felt and Haas' own description of
the 1920-22 Brno master classes, which Janacek led, and Haas attended, could
equally apply to the younger composer; "His short sentences were often glaringly
contradictory, and yet his powers of persuasion were as strong as his beliefs."
Once again the notes don't tell us but Klein's Divertimento is written
for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two French horns. They are
played by members of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir
Valek. It is a fractious and angular piece and flirts with elements of atonality.
With its emphasis on polyphony this is an exceptionally astute work for a
twenty-one year old. Saturated as it is in Moravian folk song influence the
adagio in particular burgeons under Klein's sophisticated harmonic
textures; the variation form he employs in such a short span of time - barely
five minutes - is especially noteworthy as is the Janacek theme (from The
Diary of One who Disappeared) and its subsequent development.
The performances here are all deeply impressive. The Academia Wind Quintet
Prague, in particular, is an outstanding group whose expressive, technical
and stylistic qualities lend distinction to the music and to this disc.