MUSIC OF VIKTOR KALABIS
First Release On Compact Disc
Limited Authorized 3-CD Edition
Digitally Remastered From Supraphon Sources
ZUZANA RŮŽIČKOVÁ, piano & harpsichord
JOSEF SUK, violin
CZECH PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
PRAGUE CHAMBER SOLOISTS
"The performances—most if not all recorded premieres—are authoritative."
Lehman, American Record Guide - January / February 2011
"...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, Audiophile Audition - October 2010
"...the recordings are allowing for age in good heart and even the oldest (Concerto and Quintet) sound clear, detailed and vivid... This admirable boxed set is further distinguished by a wonderful 1960 photo of Růžičková and Kalabis in the shadow of Prague Castle. The smiling portrait of the couple in their sixties can be found on the back page... This set is marked as a ‘limited authorised edition’ so do run it to ground before it disappears."
Rob Barnett, Musicweb International - October 2010
"For most Westerners, simply discovering the existence of the music of the late Czech composer Viktor Kalabis, who toiled for most of his long life behind the Iron Curtain, will be reason enough to revel in this three-disc, "limited authorized edition" reissue of recordings heretofore available only as hard-to-acquire imports on the Prague label Supraphon. His range was breathtaking (piano concertos, symphonies, ballet music, string quartets). But, on this evidence anyway, it's the "Canonic Inventions for Harpsichord," featuring the playing of his wife, that brought out his best."
Arsenio Orteza, World Magazine - September 2010
"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."
Phil Muse, Sequenza21 - May 2010
The eleven Kalabis works included on this 3-disc release were originally recorded in analogue for the 33-1/3 rpm long-play format by the Czech recording firm of Supraphon. These eleven works were composed by Kalabis between the years 1952-1980 and were recorded by Supraphon in 1956-1984. Inasmuch as the communist control of Czechoslovakia began in 1948 and the “velvet revolution” occurred in 1989, all of the music on this release was composed and recorded under communist rule. Fortunately, even under that repressive regime the audio technicians at Supraphon were excellent, and in this digital reissue we can enjoy the clear, spacious sound for which Supraphon was admired.
“Kalabis left us a masterful oeuvre. We count him among the great ones of the second half of the 20th century. His musical universe combines both necessary elements, i.e., an artistic sense developed to rareheights coupled with a completely professional mastery. With great strength of expression he reflects both the joys and the convulsions of our times together with a clearly humanist message, never falling into the trap of facility or superficiality. I avow that I deeply love Kalabis’s music and hope that more and more people will discover it.”
Karel van Eycken, from “Movement Janáček” No.54, July 2007
* * *
VIKTOR KALABIS (1923-2006) became one of the most important Czech composers in the last half of the 20th century. A master of composition, he developed a musical style entirely his own. He endured the poverty, scorn and hardship of life under totalitarian regimes -- first under the Nazis and then under communism. His music, therefore, may be characterized as a combination of struggle and sadness tempered with optimism. Listening to his music, one becomes aware of the triumph of the human spirit over darker forces. Other writers have suggested that a recurrent theme in his music is the sadness of the fleeting fate of human life, individually and collectively. In any case, Kalabis’ music is a witness to the political and social repercussions of a repressed society, in addition to attributes that can be associated with freedom: humor, imagination, beauty, and ultimately a faith in the dignity of mankind. These are profound themes expressed abstractly in his music.
Viktor Kalabis was born on 27 February 1923 in a small town in eastern Bohemia , the only child of postal employees. At an early age he showed musical talent as a pianist. As a teenager he sang in a choir and played in a jazz band. This idyllic childhood ended when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia . Because of poor eyesight, Viktor avoided conscription by the Nazis and was allowed to be a teacher, work in an airplane factory, and perform administrative duties. After the war, he studied at the Prague Conservatory (1945-48) and at the Academy of Performing Arts (1948-52). He also enrolled in Charles University , studying composition, musicology, philosophy and psychology, among other subjects. In 1948, freedom came to another abrupt end in Czechoslovakia when communist rule began. Subsequently, the academic authorities sympathetic to the regime refused to accept Kalabis’ thesis on Stravinsky and Bartó, whom they considered to be “decadent bourgeois formalists”. (It was not until 1990 that Viktor finally received his doctorate, thanks to Válav Havel, in a rehabilitation ceremony with many other distinguished persons.)
As a young composer, Kalabis also had to endure the demeaning cultural directives of the authorities, who looked upon his music with great suspicion. One critic detected a chorale in his first symphony, which was thereafter forbidden to be performed. Another one wrote, “Our workers demand music which reflects their sincere and heartfelt joy in the building of our socialist future. The road which Kalabis takes with no little self-confidence leads back, not forward! He should abolish those dissonant harmonies, be more active in the “Socialist Youth!” and learn from those new people rather than from the scores of western modernists.” At that time, this was a dangerous warning.
In 1951, Viktor first met Zuzana Růžičková a greatly gifted young harpsichordist and pianist who had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen . Viktor studied piano with her in the composition class at the Academy of Music in Prague . They fell in love, and within a year they were married. It was a brave marriage, partly because of Zuzana’s Jewish heritage and partly because her family was viewed by the communists as “capitalist” in having owned a department store. It was not until the end of 1953 that Viktor finally found employment, working as a producer and dramaturge in the “Music for Children” department of the Czechoslovak Radio, a position in which he remained for nearly two decades. During this time, he found time to compose, and by 1960 had written 17 opuses, including a piano concerto, a symphony and a violin concerto.
During the Khrushchev era, life improved somewhat for Viktor and Zuzana, although both staunchly refused to join the communist party. She was allowed to travel abroad – the state greedily confiscated her western-currency earnings – and she signed a contract to record the complete Bach keyboard works for the Erato label. With Václav Neumann she founded the Prague Chamber Soloists, and with the great violinist Josef Suk formed a duo which continued to perform for 37 years. Viktor responded to these developments by composing new works. From 1963-72 he wrote 13 opuses. After the Soviet invasion in 1968, he could no longer bear the atmosphere of oppression and, again refusing to join the party, left the Radio in 1970. In the decade that followed, he composed 25 new works. Thanks mainly to the success of her many recordings, Zuzana’s musical reputation grew to international status, and she became one of the best-known instrumentalists living behind the Iron Curtain. Indeed, she became a living legend.
In November 1989, the communist regime in Czechoslovakia collapsed and Viktor and Zuzana were “rehabilitated,” Viktor having been offered a post as head of the music department of Czechoslovak Radio - yet too late. He rejected it, giving all his last strength to the rebuilding of the Martinu* Foundation and Institute, serving as its president from 1990 to 2003. Viktor continued to compose until 2003, when his eyesight failed, and he died on 28 September 2006. He left a magnificent legacy of 92 numbered musical works, including five symphonies, two violin concertos, other concertos for violoncello, for piano, for trumpet, and for harpsichord, seven string quartets, many other chamber music pieces, works for solo piano, harpsichord, vocal works, and one ballet. The world of music has been greatly enriched by his unique creative talents.
John Solum, April 2010
VIKTOR KALABIS (1923-2006)
Piano Concerto No.1
Two Worlds - Ballet Music
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
RELEASED BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT WITH SUPRAPHON A.S. PRAGUE