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Ondrej KUKAL (b. 1964)
Violin Concerto, Op.7
Danse Symphonique for Large Orchestra, Op.10
Clarinettino Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, Op.11
Present Duo for Violin & Cello
String Quartet No. 1, Op.9.
Composer (violin); South Bohemia Chamber Philharmonic/ Vladimir Valek (Violin Concerto); Prague Radio Orchestra/composer (Danse Symphonique); Ludmilla Peterkova, clarinet, Jakub Waldman, doublebass, and New Vlach String Quartet (Clarinettino); Jana Vlachova, violin, and Mikael Ericsson, ’cello (Present); New Vlach Quartet (Quartet)
rec 1997 Czech Radio studio and Ceske Budejovice
CAMPION RRCD 1343 [68:02]

An exciting recording with a range of colourful works by Ondrej Kukal, a promising young Czech composer featured also as violinist and conductor. At just 40, Kukal has a considerable list of credits as conductor and chamber player. A member (2nd violin) of the New Vlach String Quartet, Kukal ― not to be confused with violinist K. Andrzej Kulka (b. 1947) ― has recorded chamber works by Brahms, Schumann, Suk, and Arriaga, and as conductor of the music of Janαček, Dvořák, Martinů, Haydn and Tchaikovsky.

The Violin Concerto is a searing work reminiscent of Khachaturian or Shostakovich, although its levity sets it apart from the latter's weighty, even monumental First. That concerto is repeatedly quoted and alluded to: for instance, by the flutes at 2:33 of the third movement – a barnstorming Presto con fuoco full of plucking, strumming and other engaging pyrotechnics for the soloist. While rather under-orchestrated, this concerto also shows to advantage Kukal's colourful use of wind instruments, against which the violin is often engaged in counterpoint. A largely accessible concerto with a certain grandeur and affecting, contemplative passages, this stirring work alone earns the price of the CD.

The writing for winds also stands out in Kukal's Danse symphonique, Op. 10. Perhaps the most striking feature of this compact, muscular work for large forces is its dramatic writing for brasses – echoing Walton at his most malicious, or the satanic snarling in Vaughan Williams's Job. The excitement derives mainly from the Danse's inventive, infectiously rhythmic orchestration, although some finely-crafted passages of reflective music show Kukal ranging far beyond mere jazzy flash and exuberance. His command of pacing and contrasts effectively provides this work with tension and suspense – which, to my ear, was less in evidence in his Concerto. All told, an arresting, instrumentally colourful, sometimes fiery 11-minute work.

The 'Clarinettino' Concerto for Clarinet and Strings is a work of a far sunnier disposition. Written for clarinet, string quartet and double bass, this brief (12-min) work gets the toes tapping to an energetic tango. The outer, fast movements fuse tango with light classical (think of the Quartetto Gelato), yet the involving central movement, again, plumbs musical depths of more than just passing interest.

The rather brief booklet notes that Kukal spent time conducting at Buenos Aires' Teatro Colón. This work suggests that it was time well spent – and leads one to guess at some deeper ties with the Argentine. The booklet also reports, remarkably, that the Violin Concerto is a student work, like the later 'Danse Symphonique.'

Both Kukal's String Duo and the String Quartet are beautifully-crafted chamber works that suggest a Bartókian influence – although, to my ear, as reflected through the musical prism of Zdenek Lukas, a Czech composer (whose 4th Quartet was recorded for Panton by the New Vlach). Those familiar with Lukas may note a familiar staccato mode of attack, the strong contrapuntal sense, and the overall preference for sharp, forthright musical utterances. Unlike Lukas, however, Kukal is not quite as given to rhythmic abstraction, and he has melodic felicity on his side. These are strong chamber works that reward repeated attention.

This recording shows Ondrej Kukal to be an expressive composer in an array of moods, with a winning facility for music that dares to be melodic, even attractive.

Bert Bailey

see also review by Rob Barnett

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