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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Scapino Overture (1940) [8:16]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 (1917-21) [28:13]
Miloslav KABELÁČ (1908-1979)
Reflections, Op. 49 (1964) [15:15]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie Espagnole (1908) [16:45]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dance No. 15, Op. 72 (1886) [2:44]
Peter Katin (piano)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Zdenék Košler (Walton, Prokofiev, Ravel, Dvořák), Václav Smetáček (Kabeláč)
rec. live, February 1967, Royal Festival Hall, London (Walton, Prokofiev); March 1968, Royal Festival Hall, London (Kabeláč); February 1967, Albert Hall, Nottingham (Ravel, Dvořák)

In the days before “patchwork quilt” recording of live concerts, all you could do was start your recording and pray that nothing would go wrong. Most of the time, your prayers would be answered. Unfortunately, as I for one found out to my cost on several occasions, most of the time is not all the time. It goes without saying that the problem can be simple human error.

For example, on one occasion I was doing a hospital radio relay from Huddersfield Town Hall. I had my tape cued up to record Arthur Butterworth’s Cello Concerto. This was the work’s very first performance, so it was quite important to get it right. Finishing my introduction to the hospital radio audience, I swished down the studio mic. fader, smartly prodded the button to start the tape, and advanced the hall master fader. I relaxed. Four minutes in, I stopped relaxing – the tape deck’s tiny “pause” indicator was still on. Instantly, I stabbed the “play” button, but unfortunately had no means of turning back the clock.

Albeit entailing less personal embarrassment, the problem may be “technical”, ranging from equipment breakdown (utterly disastrous) to brief glitch (mildly disastrous). More often than not a glitch (or glitches) will go unnoticed until the completed recording is played back afterwards. By and large, such faulty recordings never see the light of day. The recording presently under consideration, which originally was never intended for commercial release, contains a few irrecoverable faults.

For some unknown reason, on three occasions the left-hand channel cut out completely – twice in the Scapino Overture (at about 0:08 for just over 3 seconds, and at 0:12 for just under 2 seconds, so close together that we could count them as one) and once in Rapsodie Espagnole (at 14:27 for 54 seconds).

Should these recordings therefore have been denied sight of daylight? It’s debatable, of course, but in view of the significant historical value of the recordings, I would have to say no: in Art it’s almost a basic principle that a damaged historical artefact is better than no historical artefact. So, when mastering this CD Geoffrey Terry simply copied the right-hand channel to “plug the gaps” in the left-hand channel. Whilst far from satisfactory, this is a lot less disconcerting than being assailed by black holes in one channel, and for listeners less disconcerting through loudspeakers than it is through headphones.

I do appreciate that, if you’re not a historical buff, this may well stretch your tolerance beyond its elastic limit. But hang on a minute, because there’s another way of looking at it. Consider: here we have a CD just 46 minutes long, its short measure amply compensated by a unique and treasurable – and flawless! –recording of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto; oh – and it happens to contain two substantial but flawed “bonus” tracks which you might well find interesting.

And you might well find your tolerance less stretched than you’d expected. The first of those “bonus” tracks, Walton’s vivacious sideways glance at the Commedia dell’ Arte, is given an absolute rip-snorter of a performance by the Prague Symphony Orchestra under Zdenék Košler. The character Scapino, like Till Eulenspiegel, is a mischief-maker and, like Leporello, a scheming servant, organiser of his master’s amatory conquests. Walton paints his musical portrait uncommonly well, richly endowing it with evocative allusions to fire the listener’s imagination.
This performance is far more than a polite bouquet proffered by a visitor to his host. Košler, for his part, elucidates all the music’s madcap humour and, not to put too fine a point on it, sleaziness. He and his players have really got the measure of this music, and give a dazzling display, incisive, witty, by turns sparkling and – in my opinion quite properly – not entirely in the best possible taste. That few seconds of ‘mono’ is a very small price to pay for so much fun.
The centrepiece of this disc is Peter Katin’s performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Because he actively disliked publicity (and more particularly high-pressure promotion), Peter Katin’s public profile declined after his attention passed from the big, crowd-pulling Romantic concertos to the more intimate music he preferred, at around the same time as PR became more aggressively glamorising. Consequently – and sadly – nowadays it seems that he’s all but forgotten. This recording thus serves as a timely reminder of just what a sensational player he was in his heyday – and an invitation to have a rummage through Katin’s other recordings.

What’s the “essence” of Prokofiev? In my book he’s a rose – underneath the sweet smell he’s exceedingly prickly. Off-hand, I can’t think of another composer of his generation who so successfully combines (I won’t say “reconciles”, because he doesn’t, does he?) these two, I might say violently opposed characteristics. Katin seems to home in on this like a terrier; of its kind, his performance is matchless – thank heaven it was recorded, because he never played this work again.

Katin’s skills are of a very high order. He negotiates furious flurries of notes in often very angular procession, both fearlessly and with fearsome precision, making accents tell even when he seems already to have his wick up full, and spitting out clusters of rapidly repeated notes not only at full tilt but also without a trace of smearing – and, as you might imagine, that final, diabolical flourish is hair-raisingly articulated. And then, in mellifluous moments (like the finale’s gorgeous “soft centre”), his piano seems almost to “flow” along the music’s graceful contours. Et cetera. Yet, at every moment, the overriding impression is not of virtuoso display, but of one modestly serving the music – yes, I know that’s a bit hackneyed, but it’s true; and it’s not my fault that it’s over-used.

Košler is with him all the way. Maybe on one or two occasions when the soloist was clearly in “accompaniment” mode he could have let his players sing out a bit more. Yet, really, in the context this would just be picking nits, since generally, flinging his orchestra into the fray, he elicits a gusto that thoroughly complements the soloist – they slash like scalpels in the “prickly” bits, and they too are sensitive to the moods of the gentler moments, such as at the start of the second movement, where Košler coaxes a splendidly halting gait, with a neatly judged string accelerando and a deliciously “off-key” trumpet, whilst at the start of the finale his juicy bassoon captures the music’s jaunty primness to a “T”, and in the middle of that movement, led by succulent strings they are spine-tinglingly romantic. And, I should mention, Košler makes sure that you can hear every clack of that ‘infamous’ castanet.
So much for the “toolkit”, but what of the product? Well, the unanimity implied above is just the start; to that we can add tempi that not only feel right but also relate naturally to one another (nary an awkward gear-change anywhere) lending an overall “architectural” integrity that is not always evident in other interpretations. Finally, it is all so incredibly exciting; in particular, the crescendi will have you edging nearer and nearer to the edge of your seat (so be warned). No matter which recording’s your favourite, you really shouldn’t be without this one.
I don’t think that I’ve even heard of Miloslav Kabeláč – although these days there are so many unknowns gushing out of the woodwork that I might well be mistaken; anyway, I’m certain that I’ve never before heard his Reflections, Op. 49. It’s a curious little work that Jonathan Woolf in his review described as “variational”, comprising a string of nine distinct episodes, each one rather on the pithy side – in a manner that put me in mind of the musings and doodles that comprise Shostakovich’s Preludes Op. 34. Thus, I reckon that Reflections is probably a very apposite title, although reflections on or of what I cannot say, even after 15 minutes spent haranguing a search engine.

But, I can at least have a guess. According to the booklet note, Kabeláč came in for some pretty rough handling from certain authorities, notably the Nazis and the Soviet. Now, if (and this is a big if) these are reflections on his past life, it would explain the various mood-words that popped up into my mind (and which I had the foresight to write down) as I listened: “jagged”, “angry”, “evil”, “lonely”, “menacing”, “agitated”, “detached” and “stark”; “militaristic” ought to have been there, but I omitted to note it. Intriguingly, then, in the sixth reflection (at about the work’s mid-point), there are vaguely “Arabic”, or “oriental”, or “Muslim” turns of phrase – make of those what you will.

There is another recording, on Supraphon SU 3020-2 911. This is performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Václav Smetáček. These being the same performers as on the present CD, I doubt that it can be called competition as such. Smetáček sympathetically presents Kabeláč’s Reflections, which are on the whole sparsely but ingeniously orchestrated, with considerable clarity and sufficient command to transfix the listener for the work’s quarter of an hour.

Quite why Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole is not presented in one track rather than four I don’t know, but it sounds as though the pauses in the performance are completely unedited – providing (I guess inadvertently) the listener with the opportunity to ponder a rather curious fact, that the audience is quieter when the music’s not playing than it is when the music’s playing quietly! On top of the left channel cut-outs already mentioned, Košler and his orchestra’s fascinating performance is further marred by several very minor glitches. Maybe Košler could have been a bit more sultry, but he misses precious little else. Other than holding back a bit stiffly in the middle of the ‘Habanera’ (there’s your “precious little else”), his tempi are astutely chosen and admirably supple, whilst the carefully considered clarity with which he projects the music pretty well constitutes a primer on the subtleties of Ravel’s orchestration. It may not challenge the very best out there, but it is an interpretation well worth a listen.

The final item on the disc is the Nottingham concert’s encore, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 15, Op. 72 – which, to dispel confusion, I will translate for you as Op. 72 No. 7. Dvořák’s thrilling ‘crank start’ is missing – the recording is faded up after first bar or so, presumably because Košler dived in before the applause stopped. Nevertheless, it is a hair-raising performance, one that leaves even Szell floundering in its wake. The players sound as though they enjoyed their “hoe-down” hugely and (as you can hear) it fair lifted the roof off the hall – and the audience off its seats.
Geoffrey Terry’s recording (discounting those unavoidable flaws) is well up to his usual standard, which isn’t surprising as his setup is by definition immutable – giving us that almost uncanny feeling of “being there”. Some may find the treble a trifle brittle, others may regret a slight lack of flesh on the bottom, but to be frank these are merely matters between individual listeners and their tone controls.

Paul Serotsky

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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