VIKTOR KALABIS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Sym. No. 4; Two Worlds; Sym. No. 5; Ch. Music for Strings; Divertimento for Winds; String Quartet No. 2; Canonic Inventions; Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord; Trio; Sonata for Trombone & Piano – MSR (3 CDs)

by | Oct 9, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

VIKTOR KALABIS:  Piano Concerto No. 1;  Symphony No. 4;  Two Worlds – Ballet Music;  Symphony No. 5;  Chamber Music for Strings;  Divertimento for Wind Quintet;  String Quartet No. 2;  Canonic Inventions for Harpsichord;  Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord;  Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello;  Sonata for Trombone and Piano – Suzana Růžičková, piano & harpsichord / Josef Suk, violin /Zdenĕk  Pulec, trombone /Jan Vrána, piano /Prague Chamber Soloists /Vlach Quartet / Suk Trio /Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Jiří Bĕlohlávek /Zdenĕk Košler /  Václav Neumann /Karel Šejna – MSR Classics MS 1350 (3 CDs) [Distrib. by Albany] 71:47 + 69:33 + 58:59 ****:

Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006) was born in eastern Bohemia; an only child, he was a talented pianist, later singing in a choir and playing in a jazz group.  After the Nazi invasion he was allowed to teach, excused military service due to his poor eyesight, and resumed his studies fully in 1945.  His doctorate thesis on Stravinsky and Bartok was rejected as the communists in power from 1948 who considered these composers “decadent bourgeois formalists”.  He waited until 1990 to receive his doctorate at a ceremony organized by Václav Havel to reward many such people denied their academic qualifications by the communists.

He studied piano with Suzana Růžičková (b.1925) in1951 and they were married shortly afterwards.  She had survived both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, sent to these concentration camps due to her being Jewish, to become an internationally known pianist and harpsichordist.  Later both suffered the passive aggression reserved for those who did not join the Communist Party – for example her fees for playing outside the country were confiscated in full.  More details about their lives and musicianship are available at  MSR has gathered together under license from Supraphon recordings made for them between 1956 and 1984 of Kalabis’s music, running to three CDs.

Kalabis is described by contemporaries as “sunny and optimistic” and this is shown in spades in the piano concerto he wrote in 1954 for his wife.  Inspired by the upcoming Mozart bicentenary it was also a wedding present, and its three movements are a delight, almost Poulenc in an upbeat frame of mind.  Růžičková is the soloist, and the Czech Philharmonic sounds well under Karel Šejna, in good mono sound.  The two orchestral works on the first CD are later works, the Symphony No. 4 from 1972, and the ballet music “Two Worlds” (based on “Alice in Wonderland”), both meaty in substance.  The darkness in the symphony tells of stoic, stiff-jawed resolve, rather than self-pity, with alternating themes of brilliance coupled with the soft-hearted.  Fine performances recorded in good stereo this time are directed by  Zdenĕk Košler and  Jiří Bĕlohlávek respectively.

The second CD opens with the Fifth Symphony (1976) subtitled “Fragment” and inspired by Michelangelo’s unfinished Pieta and its economy of structure.  It’s a powerfully serious work in one movement of a quarter hour,  directed here by  Václav Neumann who brings out the considerable energy in the writing.  Neumann also conducts the “Chamber Music for Strings” dating from 1963. The conductor had recently founded the Prague Chamber Soloists and commissioned this work from Kalabis, a work which melds ancient and modern with interest and charm.  The dedicatees produce an excellent reading.

The Divertimento for Wind Quintet,  here played by soloists from the Czech PO with that timbre which survives still, is another modern take on an old form, the result delightful and entertaining.  The string quartets are meatier stuff, much more personal in their depths.  A cycle has just been released by Praga Digitals, sadly not in their now customary SACD format, the playing shared by the Kocian and Zemlinsky Quartets.  In this recording,  the Vlach are well-caught in their 1965 recording by the Supraphon engineers, bringing out the sadness and stoicism of its inspiration, the soon-expected death of the composer’s father.

The composer’s wife,  Suzana Růžičková, features in the six short and amusing two-part inventions for harpsichord, and she is then joined by Josef Suk for the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord, both works dating from the 1960s.  Neither work indulges in pastiche, the Sonata, written to be played alongside Bach and Handel, is a thoroughly red-blooded tonal contemporary work whose passions both musicians bring out very successfully.  Suk’s trio, the commissioners of the work, perform the Piano Trio (1974), another work full of striving energy and determination,  a work whose strength perks one up rather than beats one down, two very lively movements framing what feels like nachtmusik.  The collection is completed by the Sonata for Trombone and Piano in which the soloist brilliantly puts over the clusters and bitonality along with fine singing tone.

Kalabis’s Violin Concerto Op.17 is available as part of the final volume of Supraphon’s Ancerl edition, and another CD contains the first Kalabis work I encountered, the Harpsichord Concerto, Romantic Love Songs and Symphonic Variations, coupled with a different recording of the Violin Concerto.  Sound quality from Supraphon was always among the best, the Rudolfinum in Prague an excellent location for recording larger works, and the few mono recordings here still sound full-blooded if a little dated.   

However, it is this fine new set from MSR, a limited authorized edition, and at rather less than full price, which serves as an excellent overview of Kalabis the composer.  Supported by the Viktor Kalabis and  Suzana Růžičková Foundation and Supraphon, this set restores to circulation a core of this vital composer’s work.  It deserves to be sold out soon!

— Peter Joelson


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