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Karel HUSA (1921-2016)
Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1988) [29:45]
Pastorale for String Orchestra [5:35]
Scenes from The Trojan Women - Suite for Orchestra (1980) [23:54]
Paul York (cello)
Louisville University Symphony Orchestra/Kimcherie Lloyd
rec. Louisville, USA, 1982-89.
world premiere recordings
ABLAZE RECORDS AR00008 [59:22]

Prague-born Karel Husa studied in Czechoslovakia and in Paris but lived in the USA for many years. He taught at Cornell University and Ithaca College. His reputation has found room to flourish in the field of wind band music, for which there is still a ready audience in the USA. That said, he has written a great deal for orchestra and for chamber groups. There was a longstanding working relationship with Louisville - its artistic community, musicians and academic institutions.

Two all-Husa discs exist and were issued by the much lamented First Edition Music label: FECD0009 (Music for Prague 1968, Apotheosis of This Earth) and FECD0023 (Two Michelangelo Sonnets, The Trojan Women). The present CD continues the blood-line with two substantial works and a shorter piece - though the latter has substance enough in its own right.

When Husa entered the Prague Conservatory in 1940 he made contact with the long Czech tradition of writing for the cello. This was through his composition teacher Jaroslav Řdk who, at that time, was engaged in writing his Second Cello Concerto. The first movement of the Husa Cello Concerto groans and grumbles with broadly expressed discontent; it’s lyrical nonetheless. It sounds like an extruded imprint of the sound adopted by Sibelius in his Fourth Symphony. The will-o’-the-wisp second movement (‘Recitative’) is rife with darkly fantastic invention. The third movement is characterised by dreamy Puck-like textures. ‘Remembrance’ is the title of the fourth movement. It has the spirit of a lament, but a capricious one. The final ‘Hymn’ is licked with flame-like figures from the cello and ends in a sustained cry hedged around with glittering percussion. I am not sure why it carries the title ‘Hymn’. The work overall is desperately serious and seems to speak of torment with only momentary remission.

The Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition went to this Concerto in 1993. It was commissioned by the Frank Kerze, Jr. Fund for the University of Southern California School of Music, for Daniel Lewis, and for the USC Symphony. Completed in 1989, it was premiered on 2 March that year in Pasadena, California. Lynn Harrell was the soloist and the USC Symphony was conducted by Daniel Lewis. It was given in its definitive form at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on 16 November 1991, by the same performers.

The little Pastoral for String Orchestra was commissioned by the American String Teacher's Association for the 1980 ASTA National String Orchestra. This was first performed at the National Biennial Meeting of the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) in Miami Beach, Florida on 20 April 1980. Husa was the guest conductor. The liner-notes tell us that it derives from the early Sonatina for Violin and Piano, composed in 1944 when Husa was still a student at the Conservatory of Music in Prague. This music bears a passing resemblance to the airborne ecstasy of the 1930s massed string writing of Tippett. Beautifully sprung melodic phrases are borne high by a lighter harmonic style than we may be accustomed to from Husa.

Scenes from The Trojan Women, adapted from the ancient Greek play by Euripides, was commissioned for the opening of the University of Louisville School of Music in 1980–81. The premiere was presented by the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra and the Louisville Ballet on 28 March 1981. The orchestra was directed by the composer and the ballet was choreographed by Alun Jones. Akira Endo recorded The Trojan Women ballet for the First Edition label in 1981. I would mention in passing that n the late 1930s the British composer Cecil Gray also wrote a music-drama entitled The Women of Troy.

The Trojan Women recounts the grim fate of the women of Troy. Their men have been slaughtered by the Achaeans and Troy laid waste. Andromache mourns the death of her son Astyanax. Husa relates the story to his experience of the destruction of a Czech village by the Nazis. The writing is jagged and discordant with prominent and exuberantly bitter roles for the percussion. The music is not so much about desolation but about how humankind delivers desolation. A gleaming silvery tenderness only enters for the passage that depicts the soldiers leaving with Andromache (tr.10). It is extremely moving and impresses deeply. The Epilogue, depicting the women being led away from the smoking ruins of Troy, is a thunderous whooping cannonade of sound. It ends this largely unforgiving piece, which boils and flares like a bath of bubbling acid.

I should also mention in passing two significant CDs issued by Phoenix USA. They're a far from inconsiderable addition to the Husa discography. Volume 1 comprises String Quartets 2 and 3 with Evocations of Slovaquie. This is PHCD113. Volume 2 is PHCD128 and contains Divertimento for Brass Ensemble and Percussion, Fantasies for Orchestra and Scenes from the Ballet, The Trojan Women.

Returning to this Ablaze Records disc, we are privileged to hear two torridly demanding major works that hem in the more sweetly tempered Pastorale.

Rob Barnett



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