KAPRÁLOVÁ: Sonata Appassionata. 3 Piano Pieces, Op. 9: I. Praeludium; II. Crab Canon. Grotesque Passacaglia. 5 Piano Compositions. Dubnová Preludia. Variations sur le Carillon de l’Église St-Étienne-du-Mont. Dance for Piano (reconstructed: Koukl). Dvĕ Kytičky (2 Bouquets). Písnička (Little Song). Ostinato Fox. Slavnostní Fanfára (Festive Fanfare) / Giorgio Koukl, pianist / Grand Piano GP708
Here is something different under the sun: the complete piano music of the little-known and short-lived Czech composer-conductor Vítĕzslava Kaprálová. She was born in 1915, her musical abilities recognized early, and was already composing fully mature compositions at the age of 16. It’s a good thing, too, because she died at age 25 of an illness misdiagnosed as miliary tuberculosis (I am indebted to Karla Hartl of the Kaprálová Society for letting me know that the latest research indicates that she probably died of typhoid fever) in Montpellier, France. She had a good pedigree, having studied composition under Vítĕzslav Novak and conducting under the great Václav Talich.
Judging from this recording, her harmonic language was essentially tonal but included many “sideways” key changes and unusual chord positions. The opening selection, the Sonata Appassionata, was written in 1933 when she was only 18. It is unusual for being in only two movements, the second of which is a theme and variations. The muscular first movement, marked “Maestoso – Appassionato,” fits well into the work’s title, while the second is surprisingly lyrical, showing a good sense of invention but not particularly passionate. To my ears, this sonata has more the sound of a piano reduction of an orchestral work. I wonder if she was already thinking orchestrally while writing it. The last variation, marked “Vivo,” is by far the most interesting, progressing in a manner very similar to some of the harmonically unusual works of Charles-Valentin Alkan. It is also the one variant with the most counterpoint, showing how well she was absorbing her lessons.
The Praeludium of 1935 is rather denser harmonically, still tonal but occasionally ambiguous and utilizing many tone clusters and rolling, descending chromatic figures, sometimes with the two hands playing close seconds or other clashing harmonies. It may best be described as a jollier version of Max Reger’s music. I was even more taken by the Crab Canon form the same year, with its measured “crawl” up and down the keyboard, again often chromatically. Also very interesting is the Grotesque Passacaglia from the same year, a truly startling and original work, sounding much more like something written in the late 1940s or early ‘50s than in 1935. The music continually shifts patterns, both rhythmic and harmonic, in such a way that the listener is tossed around a bit like a rag doll in a box trying to follow it.
Kaprálová’s 5 Piano Compositions date from 1931, when she was only 16 years old. You’d never guess she was so young at the time, so imaginative and structurally sound is her musical expression. Already at this young age, she was moving along chromatic lines, i.e. in the second piece (“Andante”) which combines tender lyricism with surprising chord shifts. Occasionally, as in the “Tempo di Menuetto,” we hear Kaprálová “thinking as she writes,” using little luftpausen to interrupt the flow so that both she and the listener can absorb what is going on. The final section, “Alla marcia funèbre,” has a surprisingly Russian sound about it, much like mid-period Scriabin.
I’ve had occasion to review, and praise, the work of pianist Giorgio Koukl in other music, but the highest honor I can give him is that he focuses the listener’s attention on what the music has to say. This does not mean that he plays in a placid, straightforward manner with no feeling or dynamics—on the contrary, his playing is incredibly passionate—only that it matches the mood of the music so well that you remain riveted to what Kaprálová is saying in the music. That is the mark of a great interpreter, to make you hear the music and what it is saying without imposing a quirky interpretation on top of it.
There is indeed some growth to be heard in her later works, particularly the April Preludes of 1937. Here the daring harmonic experiments of her earlier music are used in a commanding manner; she is absolutely sure of what she is saying and how to say it, and thus can “speak” eloquently through the keyboard. Despite its title, there is very little music here that one would mentally associate with April or springtime as such, save for the third prelude (“Andante semplice”). The fourth and last prelude is set to a lively dance tempo, but the continual harmonic movement keeps moving it slightly away from the listener, and the later section, in which the tempo is greatly reduced, forces one to listen to the now-darker chords being used.
Short as it is—only eight minutes total—the Variations on the Bells of the Church of St. Etienne from 1938 displays an even greater command of compositional style. Kaprálová was quite obviously moving towards a compact style in which a few gestures said as much as her more effusive statements of just a few years earlier.
Some of the later pieces on this CD (the Two Bouquets, Písnička, Ostinato Fox and Festive Fanfare) are world premiere recordings, and except for the latter—a 19-second work that, though well crafted, comes and goes too quickly—they add to her small but meaty output. I was quite surprised to also find a 1935 Piano Concerto by her on YouTube, a piece that begins in a late-Romantic vein but shows streaks of her more modern style as exemplified in the short piano pieces. I’m thinking that perhaps she was trying to appeal to a larger audience in this concerto, expanding her musical vocabulary as well as her grasp of form. Whereas the piano pieces, for the most part, show a command of terse musical statements, the concerto spreads itself out and takes some time to get where it’s going. On the other hand, I was much taken with her Rustic Suite, written strictly for orchestra (you can listen to it here in a performance by conductor Jiří Pinkas and the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra). This also shows her command of orchestral writing, and despite its reliance on folk-like themes is simply bursting with energy. A truly interesting piece!
All in all, this is a thoroughly fascinating disc and a great introduction to a composer who definitely deserves to be better known.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley