Music of Viktor Kalabis
Zuzana Růžičková, piano & harpsichord
Josef Suk, violin; The Suk Trio
Vlach String Quartet
Prague Chamber Soloists
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by
Jiří Bělohlávek, Zdeněk Košler, Václav Neumann, and Karel Šejna
Czech composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006) was an unknown name to me when this 3-CD jewel box arrived in the mail. As I began scanning the Internet for basic research in writing this review, I was astonished to find that only two Kalabis works were listed on Arkivmusic.com, both buried in recordings of works by other composers. My wonder increased as I actually began listening to the composer’s music. Here was a distinctive, major voice of the 20th century, one who by rights should have a place in modern music near to Bartók or Kodály, two older contemporaries whom he admired, or Stravinsky, of whom he wrote a thesis. (I will leave it to others more qualified than I, and to time, which reveals all things, to determine the exact niche.) Why had I never encountered this striking figure before, in concert or on record?
The answer lies in the fact that Kalabis spent his most creative years in a time when his country was under a Communist regime. That he fell in love with and married a Jewish woman (the great keyboard artist Zuzana Růžičková) probably did not endear him to the authrorities. That they both steadfastly refused to join the Party met with petty retribution. For Růžičková, the first harpsichordist to record all the works for her instrument by J.S. Bach, it meant confiscation of all her fees from foreign concerts. For Kalabis, it meant denial of every visa application to travel abroad and promote his own music in the concert hall. It was a conspiracy of utter silence, in its effect more damning than anything that even Shostakovich experienced under the Soviet regime in Russia.
But there were some unexpected plusses. If Viktor Kalabis was denied a visa to travel, so were other artists. Thus he benefitted from the opportunity to develop professional and personal relationships with a number of great musicians in Prague in the four decades before the Party was overthrown in 1987. The work of many of these artists, as well as the contributions of outstanding sound engineers, is heard in the present program. Further, he had the advantage of being married to a world-class musician who might be expected to critique and perform his music. (Has anyone , other than Robert Schumann, ever been in that situation?) And just as he devoted his energies to the Bohuslav Martinu Foundation and Institute at a time when that composer’s work was a cause to fight for, so he himself has had the benefit of a similar foundation that continues to promote his work after his death (for information on its activities, visit www.kalabismusic.org ). The story of how the present MSR release became a reality is no doubt involved, but I note that the secretary of the international Viktor Kalabis and Zuzana Růžičková Foundation, the distinguished American flutist and educator John Solum, is credited here as executive producer. Providing further aid in the transatlantic effort were MSR’s Robert LaPorta for product management, unnamed engineers at Supraphon, Prague who provided superb digital transfers, and Richard Price of Candlewood Digital, who did the final digital mastering. It was a quality job all around, right down to the cover art and package design by Tim Schwartz of Orion Productions.
Having said all that, let’s get around to discussing the music. Viktor Kalabis’ style is distinctive. His music is economical, honest and direct. Right from the opening of any of the works in this program you get a clear impression of its purpose and specific weight. He is clearly a modernist with little of the romantic heritage in the forefront of his music, and yet his music has a distinctly Czech flavor that separates it from the modern mainstream in which it flows. The modernist features in his music compel, rather than repel, the listener, in particular his compelling rhythms, to which he frequently interjects boldly contrasted elements, his occasional use of bitonality and tone clusters, as he does in the Sonata for Trombone and Piano (1970), and most of all his wonderful color palette, especially at the dark end of the spectrum. His music is pure, with no implied program – the exception being The Two Worlds: Ballet Music, which he wrote for a staging of Alice in Wonderland by the Children’s Music department of Czech Television. Though his music is serious, it is never depressive.
Due to Kalabis’ concise style, we have the advantage of hearing eleven major works in this 3-disc package. Beginning with his Piano Concerto no. 1 (1956), which he wrote as a wdding present for his wife (Růžičková performs it here in a delightful performance with the Czech PO under Karel Šejna). Intended partly as a tribute to Mozart in his bicentennial year, it is a modern work that is very Mozartean in its formal design, its clarity, and its gentle humor. Listening to it, I kept recalling Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in the seriousness of its opening movement and the wonderful way the piano leavens that severity with the warmth and intimacy of its solo in the slow movement, an Andante marked molto quieto e semplice. Two symphonies are included. Symphony No. 4 in two movements (1972) is highly dramatic, with sensational use of the percussion as an integral element. No. 5 (1976) is subtitled “Fragment,” not because it is incomplete (it is in fact a unified work in a single movement), but in honor of Michelangelo’s famous unfinished sculptures, which it emulates in its highly condensed content and emotion. Chamber Music for Strings (1963), written for the Prague Chamber Soloists, shows a striving for all the rich tonality and expression of which a string orchestra is capable.
The chamber works bear further evidence to Kalabis’ concise expression and dramatic power. String Quartet No. 2 (of seven), which Kalabis wrote in 1962-63 in the shadow of his father’s impending death, reveals these qualities. So do the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord (1967), here performed by the artists for whom it was written, Suk and Růžičková, and the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello (1974), likewise performed by the Suk Trio, to whom it is dedicated. In both we have distinguished ensemble playing and a central slow movement in which the final word is left to Suk’s violin, magically trailing off its final phrase into ultimate silence. In its mastery of harmony and counterpoint in a modern context, Kalabis’ six 2-voice Canonic Inventions for Harpsichord (1962, played here by Zuzana) pays handsome, scintillating homage to both Bach and Scarlatti. And even the Divertimento for Wind Quintet, perhaps the lightest work on the program, reflects Kalabis’ concerns for concision and pithy expression as it pays its respects to a golden past era from the perspective of a more problematical modern one in which it is still possible to find meaning and even elusive happiness.