BIZET: Symphony in C. Jeux d’enfants (with six pieces from Bizet’s four-hand piano original not included in the original version, two of them orchestrated by Hershy Kay and four by Roy Douglas). Variations chromatriques (orchestrated by Felix Weingartner, 1933). Martin West conducting the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Reference Recordings RR-131.
Martin West continues to show his conductorial prowess, and proves that his orchestra is a first-rate ensemble, with this handsome all-Bizet disc. By now, the story of the misplaced Symphony in C by the seventeen-year-old Bizet and its exhumation in the mid-1930s (eight years after it was finished), is well known. The Symphony is now a repertory staple, and perhaps as good an example as any of the mature orchestral pieces of the French composer’s thirty-six-year lifespan of Bizet’s unusual gifts of orchestration and invention. Balance and pacing are the key to handling this symphony, and West does not fall short of these. The slow movement, full of balance problems — notably, the oboe solo against the strings — and West is secure here, aided by a superb recording. The pianissimo timpani roll marking the transition to the recapitulation is nicely brought out. West is also aided by the recording technicians in his traversal of the Scherzo and its distinctive coloration. The string articulation in the even more demanding Finale is consistently crisp, rhythmic and full of musical meaning.
West performs a marvelous service to Bizet in his presentation of Jeux d’enfants in including movements not included by the composer in his orchestral rendering of the four-hand piano version. Two of them are by the American Hershy Kay, who for some time held a position as arranger for a ballet company; and four by the Englishman Roy Douglas, perhaps best known for his orchestration of Chopin piano pieces for the ballet Les Sylphides. These orchestrations are presented on records here for the first time. They seem generally in accord with the spirit of Bizet.
There is perhaps more Weingartner than Bizet in the version of the Chromatic Variations for piano, an intriguing and superbly idiomatic passacaglia-like set of variations. The woodwind solos in the first variation, accompanied by strings, do seem to recall the composer. Most of the time, the German composer-conductor seems more interested in showing off his own flair and technique in handling a large orchestra than in Bizet’s music. Even so, it is interesting to hear Weingartner’s take on the Variations — which have not had a recording in forty years. West again proves himself a master of pacing and balance.
SALIERI: Sinfonia Veneziana in D. GEORG CHRISTOPH WAGENSEIL: Symphony in g minor, WV. 418 (transposed). HAYDN: Symphony No. 22 in E-flat, The Philosopher. MOZART: Symphony No. 14 in A, K. 114. All arrangements by Bryan Johanson, and played by the Oregon Guitar Quartet (Bryan Johanson, David Franzen, Jesse McCann and John Mery). CubeSquared CS-604.
This is an album to which I looked forward for a long time. John Mery, one of the members of the Oregon Guitar Quartet, mentioned to me some time ago that the group and Bryan Johanson, also a member of the Quartet and its tireless arranger/composer in residence, were working on an arrangement of a symphony by Georg Christoph Wagenseil as well as an early A-major Symphony of Mozart (K. 114). Those arrangements, plus versions by Johanson of the Haydn No. 22 (Der Philosoph) and the Symphony in D (Veneziana) of Antonio Salieri, are about to be offered to the public.
From the opening bars of the Salieri symphony, it was clear that the Oregonians were in their element of clarity, transparency of texture—-whether the texture happens to be light or busy—– and an uncanny drive to get to the essence of the music. Unlike the Quartet’s previous albums of Baroque music and free paraphrases of folk and popular songs, this is not linear music. It is pre-eminently homophonic and requires a keen sense of voice-leading. The OGC does not disappoint here. It is remarkable how much of the spirit of the music not only survives but, in fact, is enhanced in its transfer to a more intimate medium. The simulation of mezza-voce pizzicati and the deft articulation of triplet figures in the trio to the Menuet of the Mozart, and the percussive punctuations in the Presto (second movement) of the Haydn, are striking touches. Haydn’s Presto and Wagenseil’s opening Vivace are not quite the tempi at which an orchestra might take them, but in these renditions we have a graphic illustration of the quality of rhythm as opposed to taking tempo indications too “literally”. The spirit of presto and vivace unmistakably permeate the music. This also brings home the relativity, and perhaps the intentional vagueness, of the meanings of those commonplace Italian words used to indicate tempi. Presto unquestionably means fast, though not necessarily a speed record; whereas Vivace or Allegro, for instance, tend to be more evocative (in their literal meaning) of mood than of velocity. Vivace, after all, means lively; Allegro means happy, as Arturo Toscanini brought it home during a long-ago orchestral rehearsal: “Allegro—-with smile!”
All of what is on this disc is a delightful illustration of very sensitive ensemble playing.
VIKTOR KALABIS: Symphony No. 2, Sinfonia pacis, op. 18 (1959-61). The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zdenek Kosler. Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, op. 17 (1958-59). Petr Skvor, violin; with the Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. Concerto for Large Orchestra, op. 25 (1965-66). Ladislav Slovák conducting the Czech Philharmonic. Symphony No. 3 for Large Orchestra, op. 33 (1970-71). Jirí Belohlávek conducting the Czech Philharmonic. Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, Le tambour de villevieille, op. 36 (1973). Miroslav Kejmar, trumpet; with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Milos Konvalinka. Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, op. 42 (1974-1975). Zuzana Ruzicková, harpsichord; with the Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer. Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, op. 49 (1977-78). Josef Suk, violin; with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, op. 61 (1985). Milan Langer, piano; with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tomás Koutník. Concertino for Bassoon and Wind Instruments, op. 61 (1983). Jirí Formácek, bassoon; with the Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble conducted by Milos Formácek. Supraphon 4109-2: three CDs.
Viktor Kalabis, who died seven years ago, was a great composer and an authentically great man. I had never heard of him before I received a copy of this remarkable three-disc set; but, on listening to his probing, incisive second symphony and his violin concerto, I liked what I heard. There are dominant twelve-tone elements in this music, but a strong leaning toward the lyrical on the one hand and the dramatic on the other. It is music full of passion (an element lacking in today’s apathetic and malleable society), rich in ideas and obviously very skillfully written, created over a quarter-century period from about 1959 to 1985.
Kalabis, who was born in what used to be called East Bohemia in 1923, uses dodecaphonic elements but is never a slave to the strict twelve-tone system. He was, in early adulthood, pushed around by Czechoslovakia’s Nazi occupation forces as he was to be pushed around by the ruling Communist élite in his thirties and forties in particular. He and his wife, the harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzicková (heard on these discs in her husband’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings), refused to join the Czech Communist Party and paid for it by suffering numerous indignities: Kalabis had earned a doctorate at Charles University in 1952, but was not awarded the degree until more than forty years later. In 1954, Kalabis took a job with the Czech Radio; there, he instituted Concertino Praga, a competition for young artists. After the dissolution of the Communist establishment in 1989, Kalabis began working on behalf of the Bohuslav Martinu Foundation and established the Bohuslav Martinu Institute. His eyesight became steadily worse as he moved into his ninth decade, and by 2002 he was no longer able to write music. He died in 2006, after a long illness.
His marriage to Ruzicková — which he called the “centrum securitatis” of his life — was one of the fruits of his post-World War II drive toward self-improvement. He spent the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties studying at the Prague Conservatory, the Academy of Performing Arts and (as noted) at Charles University. He took private conducting lessons. He took piano lessons from Ruzicková, and married her a year to the day after his first lesson.
Take the second symphony, for certain a portentous work—–which he called Sinfonia pacis, giving it its Latin name to avoid its being lumped with the contemporary clichés about world peace. The tension of the Cold War and man’s yearning for a more tranquil world, said Kalabis, “is a universal human problem, beyond nationality, race and class”. The first movement gives the sense of an uneasy calm before the storm, whereas the second is tempestuous and dramatic. The composer calls it an evocation of “war, barbarity, fascism, destruction of values, stupid fecklessness, [Ray] Bradbury’s mechanical hound”. He described the third movement as a “lament over a burned land”. The fourth movement starts with a fugue which is eventually broken up and ends quietly, quoting a traditional children’s song. Kalabis did get some chiding in the Czech press for taking up the theme of peace.
Kalabis was a complex man. The Sinfonia pacis and the first violin concerto, both vivid and dramatic, are part and parcel of his passionate side. Those who knew him remember him as a fun-loving, jovial man. He was also a student of philosophy and a man who seemed to be interested in everything, a man who could speak several languages fluently and had a comfortable command of classical Latin.
His musical language is atonality. From time to time, he allows diatonic elements to creep in—-the second violin concerto, for instance, ends on a pure major third. This concerto features the original performing forces who introduced it in the 1970s—-violinist Josef Suk, who emerges as a passionate advocate for this truly virtuosic and essentially dramatic work; and the Czech Philharmonic under Wolfgang Sawallisch. This fifteen-minute concerto, subdivided into three sections (with an abbreviated and slightly modified reprise of the original idea at the end), benefits greatly from the participation of both a recognized violin virtuoso and an experienced conductor. The Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, virtually a contemporary of the second violin concerto, is a virtuoso vehicle for Ruzicková, who appears here with the Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by her husband. (This is one of only two times that Kalabis himself, in this three-disc set, appears in a performing capacity). Each movement has at least one fully written-out cadenza, and the writing is always challenging for the harpsichordist. As the big first-movement cadenza comes to a close and ushers in the coda, there are concerns about instrumental balance. The harpsichord is miked extremely closely, and at times even threatens to overwhelm the orchestra—-but this is the only time in the recording where this occurs. The second movement begins with a cello solo, starting very high in that instrument’s register, an effectively coloristic touch. Later in this slow movement, there is a soaring violin solo over muted strings punctuated with dissonant chordal sonorities from the harpsichord. The third movement is a return to the virtuosic spirit of the first movement, but with a quiet ending. The harpsichord concerto is twice as long as the second violin concerto. Ruzicková says that the dark mood of the music, completed in 1975, is a reflection of the continuing Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Cheerfulness breaks in in the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments of 1985. Here, the diatonic system makes a play for overcoming atonality. Both the piano and the ensemble pull in those opposite directions. There are moments of great beauty in this work (like the second violin concerto, it is a one-movement work subdivided into three sections). Not long into the piece, flute and horn solos float over cascading piano figurations, followed by brass eruptions worthy of early Stravinsky. It isn’t Stravinsky, however: it’s Kalabis, by age sixty-two a seasoned practitioner of the art of self-improvement and the quest for fresh perspectives.
Introspection seems to overtake virtuosity—-at least, for a time—-in the middle section of the piano concerto. There are more “Stravinskian” chordal commentaries by the brass and winds. This leads to a duet for flutes, to which are added (one at a time) clarinets and piano. There are bursts of imitative counterpoint amid flights of instrumental fancy. There always seem to be bows in the direction of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments or his Concerto for Piano and Winds, but Kalabis always steps in as if to emphasize that he is not Stravinsky. The latent mood of introspection deepens as Kalabis explores diverse shadings of piano and pianissimo. The return of the atonal/diatonic dichotomy spurs a return to virtuosity (both on the part of the pianist and the wind band). Then, suddenly, brass sonorities vie with pianistic introspection. A virtuosic coda, complete with horn riffs, closes the concerto.
The Bassoon Concertino of 1983 — the shortest work, in terms of duration, in this collection — exploits the bassoon’s extreme registers, as well as its middle register, to the fullest. It is much more of a “chamber” piece than the piano concerto. It seems to have been written more for the edification of the performers than that of the audience. It is well played, especially by soloist Jirí Formácek, and the audience present at this “live” recording responds accordingly.
The Concerto for Large Orchestra of 1966 was written at the request of, and dedicated to, Karel Ancerl (then music director of the Czech Philharmonic). By the time this recording was made six years later, Ancerl had emigrated to Canada and Ladislav Slovák conducted. It is a large four-movement work, slightly less than half an hour in length and remarkable for its conciseness and conscientious craftsmanship. It is without doubt one of Kalabis’ finest works.
The first movement of the Concerto seems to be all about strings at winds, with (at first) the horns punctuating with staccato chord-like sonorities as the movements builds in intensity and momentum. Then, the percussion become part of the picture. There are recurring “interludes” in which both groups of winds and solo winds play against muted strings. Then the first clarinet indulges in a rapid moto perpetuo figuration, punctuated by loud piano chords (when these piano chords appear a second time, they are discreetly doubled by tubular bells). The texture is further decorated by oboe and bassoon arabesques. The movement ends quietly.
The second movement starts quietly, with the upper strings making a tentative attempt at song. Violas then take it up, and through their effort it becomes more of a song than at first. Woodwinds decorate, and the ‘cellos and basses continue the song. A clarinet solo, accompanied by pizzicato strings, moves things forward; an oboe then takes a solo turn, and then the brass and percussion enter. This seems to lead to what sounds like a brutal march, which is abruptly curtailed by the clarinet before another vigorous tutti. Tutti—-only in a manner of speaking, for the full brass section will not make itself known until close to the very end. Eventually, the strings begin to sing as they did at the beginning of the movement, and the lower strings take up a consequent phrase.
The third movement involves the winds and horns in a contrapuntal scherzo, which eventually includes some really electrifying virtuoso writing for the strings. A momentary eruption leads to the sound of chamber wind music once again. The texture seldom gets thicker than three or four voices. So far, Kalabis has withheld the sound of the full orchestra. He has allowed the full percussion battery to have its fortissimo say, but the climactic “big noise” is left for the finale (Allegro vivo). The last movement opens with what sounds like a double fugue exposition, with contrasting wind and string passagework interrupted by a fortissimo outburst. Kalabis is careful not to move too precipitously toward the final full-orchestra climax that such a work leads the listener to expect. This is, above all, a work that’s all about craftsmanship as much as it is about orchestral virtuosity. The brass finally come in, in longer note values than everyone else, but it is not yet time for the “big noise”. Sometimes it sounds as though Kalabis is ready to make a fugue, but instead he works his way toward a climax through a series of contrapuntal and non-contrapuntal episodes.
The third symphony, finished in 1971 and dedicated to the conductor Alfred Walter, was premiered in the United States by the Stamford (Connecticut) Symphony Orchestra, under Roger Nierenberg, in 1999. Kalabis himself was present and provided a few oral program notes, noting an evocative theme of anguish and despair followed by defiance and then resignation “that truth can be suppressed again and again”. The first movement seems to oscillate between bare textures and relentless ostinatos—very much the same emotional thread running through the Sinfonia pacis. The second movement’s tempo marking, Allegro molto drammatico, tells you what kind of a piece it is and what the mood of it is. There are brass passages that seem evocative of jazz and popular music, probably a reference to the banality of the times. Then, an eerie calm settles over the music—-high, muted strings and sustained winds, alternating with a melancholy clarinet solo. The entire string choir is ultimately brought in, with the clarinet playing a role somewhat like a tragic figure in an operatic scene. There is plenty of color and contrast, and furious drama, in this movement. The last movement is in the character of an elegy, and movingly evokes profound sadness.
Both Alfred Walter and Jirí Belohlávek (who more than ably leads the Czech Philharmonic in this recorded performance) have kept this symphony in their repertoire. It is atonal music , to be sure; it is also music created from a broadly humanistic point of view, and it is important to remember the circumstances under which it was created and the mood of Czechoslovakia in 1970, with the pressure of continued Soviet occupation and an Orwellian rewriting of history. If a listener approaches this music with that understanding, listening with his ears rather than his prejudices, he will discover the expressive possibilities of atonal music. It can express despair and resolve at the same time; the presence of Kalabis himself at the Stamford performance fourteen years ago and his ability to convey his ideas in the language of the audience, in which he was fluent, no doubt helped the audience to grasp the musical and extramusical meanings of this symphony. It is said that the Stamford performance drew tears. Belohlávek performs a superbly noble musical and artistic service in his leadership of the Czech Philharmonic.
The trumpet concerto, from 1973, drew its title – Le Tambour de Villevieille — from a miniature plaster statuette of an aged, bearded French drummer in a tattered uniform. Kalabis received it as a gift in a small town in Provence during his wife’s tour of France. The piece is highly virtuosic and was intended for Maurice André, who never performed it. Miroslav Kejmar, who is heard in the recording offered here, gave the first performance in 1986. Essentially it is a musical fable of the self-important drummer who comes down to earth from his reminiscences of war.