I wrote about Viktor Kalabis earlier this year (2010) and was delighted that the Kalabis and Ruzickova Foundation sent me three further volumes to listen to and write about.
Viktor KALABIS (1923-2006)
Symphony No. 3 for large orchestra, Op. 33 (1970-71) [24:36]
Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 49 in one movement (1977-78) [15:16]
Concerto for Large Orchestra, Op. 25 (1965-66) [28:29]
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek (Op. 33); Josef Suk (violin), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch (Op. 49); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Ladislav Slovák (Op. 25)
rec. Dvorák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 1972; 1980, live; 1971
PANTON 81 9027-2 011 [68:39]
Here are three concise orchestral works by one of the Czech Republic’s most illustrious composers. The symphony (one of five), which dates from 1971, is said to be linked to the aftermath of the Prague Spring. With its migration through blanched colours and desolate yet never quite frozen landscapes via a saw-toothed Allegro molto drammatico (it could have been more dramatic, I think) and a shiftingly pensive and mournfully introspective Adagio offering little consolation. The Second Violin Concerto (one of eleven concertos for various instruments) is a tautly constructed and concentrated work written for the soloist here. It has a fruity redolence of the Berg Concerto with an infusion of violence. It here receives a virile and at times raging performance and recording. The four movement Concerto for Orchestra is the earliest work here and ranges through a seemingly scorched landscape, through inventive plangent writing, through honeyed consolation (at the end of II) and impudent fluttering fugal writing. Its two companions feel more focused and driven. The Concerto for Orchestra is a display piece operating as a vehicle for the instruments of the orchestra - not in any stultifying academic way – and also as a kaleidoscope of moods and scenes.
Viktor KALABIS (1923-2006)
CD 1
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 6 (1949) [25:20]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 19 (1962) [15:32]
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 48 (1977) [17:55]
CD 2
String Quartet No. 4 “Tribute to J.S.Bach”, in one movement, Op. 62 (1983-4) [11:56]
String Quartet No. 5 In memory of Marc Chagall, Op. 63 (1984) [19:59]
String Quartet No. 6 In memory of Bohuslav Martinu, Op. 68 (1987-8) [16:37]
String Quartet No. 7 Op.76 in one movement (1993) [14:24]
Kocian Quartet (Pavel Hula, Miloš Cerný (violins), Zbynek Padourek, (viola) Václav Bernášek (cello)) (1-3); Zemlinsky Quartet (František Soucek, Petr Strlžek (violins), Petr Holman (viola), Vladimír Fortin (cello)) (4-7)
rec. CD1: Domovina Studio, Prague 1, 20-21 July 2009; CD2: Prague, June 2009
Musica Nova Bohemica series
World premiere recording of complete Kalabis string quartets
PRAGA DIGITALS PRD/DSD 250262 [58:58 + 63:16]
Like Martinu the composer he promoted for many years Viktor Kalabis wrote seven string quartets. They appear here in one Praga Digital set in their Musica Nova Bohemica series after having initially been issued as separate discs.
These are stunning works in stunning performances.
The First Quartet was commissioned by the famous Smetana Quartet but never played by them perhaps because at the time its language was felt to be too elitist. In fact it sings the same opulently melodic tissue sung by the Smetana quartets. That said it is filtered through the twentieth century’s tonal alembic. Those poniard stabs at the opening speak of anger and tragedy subjected to melancholy softening by the eloquent Elegia-Largo (III) and the optimistically inclined and folk-inflected Allegro vivace (IV).
The three movement Second Quartet was commissioned and premiered by the Vlach. It is more inclined to the searingly acrid than the First Quartet. The spiky witchery of the central movement prepares the ground for the acidic yet sweetly fatigued desolation of the finale. The Third Quartet followed fourteen years after its predecessor. It is playful though the play feels macabre like that of medieval plague children. It was premiered by the Talich in 1980.
The Zemlinsky Quartet take over from the Kocian for the second disc. The Fourth Quartet was written during the final days of the Communist regime. Like the First Quartet it was premiered by the Smetana for its anniversary. And just like the First the commissioners were slow in playing the work as a result the premiere was given by the Berlin Comic Opera Quartet. It is a work of quiet confiding and whispered fantasy. Its successor, the Fifth Quartet (in memory of one of Kalabis’s influences the painter Marc Chagall) shares this sense of a world in miniature across three intricately imagined movements the last of which has a sanguine motor rhythmic drive and buzzing and wheeling gypsy feeling that in its high wheeling violin writing recalls Tippett. The Sixth Quartet is dedicated to Martinu, a composer in whose music he invested much time including active promotion and assistance in founding the Martinu Institute. This work feels bigger and louder in sound – more dramatic – in keeping with Martinu’s own muse though never sounding like a parody. That said there are some Martinu echoes as in the buzzing at the start of the finale which for me recalls the Fantaisies Symphonique. The second CD starts and ends with a single movement quartet. The Seventh Quartet contains for me the frankest Martinu reference at about 3:00 in. It is said to be a biographical work and the composer described it as ‘… a diary, a confession …’. It feels intimate and the note-writer for this set, Ales Brezina draws a plausible comparison with the Beethoven late quartets. The music is vividly imagined and some of it certainly communicates as a soliloquy if that is not a contradiction in terms. A fine skein of stratospheric violin writing impresses in an enigmatically majestic yet telling piece of understatement.
Jindrich FELD (b.1925) Sonata for flute and string orchestra (1957 for flute and piano; arranged for flute and orchestra 1965) [19:47]; Musique concertante for flute, viola, harp and strings (2005) [19:57]
Zdenek LUKÁŠ (b.1928) Music for Harp and Strings [15:58]
Viktor KALABIS (1923-2006) Tristium - Concert Phantasy for viola and strings (1981) [12:11]
Carlo Jans (flute); Jitka Hosprová (viola); Katerina Englichová (harp)
Prague Chamber Orchestra/Antonín Hradil
rec. Domovina Studios, Prague, September 2006
ARCO DIVA UP 0097 - 2 131 [68:20]
Jonathan Woolf wrote with typically incisive sympathy abut this disc some three years ago. It now reappears with a new cover; Jonathan had been critical of the old one. Feld’s Musique concertante is mightily delicate, alive with thrumming energy and occasionally dissonantly edgy but nothing to frighten your auntie’s horses. It’s a wirily imaginative blend of Stravinsky, Martinu and Tippett. If you have been pleased to discover the Mexican composer Julian Orbón either through the various Mata recordings or on Naxos then this should please you. Feld’s Sonata for flute and string orchestra is less thorny than its companion here. The middle movement’s velvet mallet blows recall Martinu and the whole effect is seriously enchanting as is the fluttering bustle of the finale - Allegro Vivace. Lukas’s Music for Harp and Strings is tonal-melodic with drama present but subordinate to romantic surrealism. Again if you have enjoyed William Alwyn’s Lyra Angelica then this is a footstep away and just as beautiful, as dignified and, as a harp concerto, as exciting. Kalabis’s Tristium is about the same length and is of a similar scale and emotional demeanour to Holst’s Lyric Movement though perhaps more varied in the range of incidents. The four works represent a melodious slice of the last century’s finest musical invention.
Rob Barnett
Put the discovery of Kalabis on your to-do list – do hunt down these CDs and brace yourself for some striking discoveries with the string quartets and in the case of the Arco Diva disc a melodious slice of the last century’s finest musical invention.

Other MWI Kalabis reviews
Arco Diva
MSR set