KAPRÁLOVÁ: Prélude de Noël. Military Sinfonietta. Sad Evening.* Waving Farewell.* Suite en Miniature, Op. 1. Piano Concerto + / *Nicholas Phan, ten; Amy I-Len Cheng, pno; University of Michigan Symphony Orch.; Kenneth Kiesler, cond / Naxos 8.574144
Even though I only reviewed one CD of Vítĕzlava Kaprálová’s music on this blog, way back in February of 2017, I have not forgotten her. On the contrary, she has been on my radar ever since, and so I was really excited to see this disc of her orchestral works released by Naxos.
As I said in my first review, Kaprálová’s “harmonic language was essentially tonal but included many ‘sideways’ key changes and unusual chord positions…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.”
On this CD, the most conventional-sounding piece is the opener, Prélude de Noël, a piece that she probably tossed off as a “little” Christmas piece. The Military Sinfonietta, written in 1936-37, became her most famous work during her lifetime. It clearly contains elements of both the French impressionist school and Béla Bartók but really sounds like neither. Her general tendency towards tonality is at the forefront here, but again with those “sideways” key changes (such as at the 5:21 mark in the first movement) that mark her musical style. Since this is the first time I’m hearing this work, it may be the music itself or the conducting of Kenneth Kiesler, but I didn’t care for the Romantic phrasing, with a heavy legato feel and extreme slow-downs (decelerando) in the slower passages. It just doesn’t sit well with her style.
Nonetheless, there are several interesting moments in this piece, particularly around the 10:15 mark where both the orchestration and harmony take some surprising turns. Kaprálová herself conducted the premiere performance with the Czech Philharmonic, followed by her conducting it with the BBC Symphony in London. She was the first woman to conduct either orchestra. The composer’s own notes explain why she wrote a military Sinfonietta: “The composition does not represent a battle cry, but it depicts the psychological need to defend that which is most sacred to the nation.”
Sad Evening is a song that was only discovered in 2006, receiving its premiere at the University of Michigan’s Kaprálová Festival in 2015. This is a very harmonically advanced piece, with only the singer’s line remaining resolutely tonal and lyrical. The constantly shifting harmonies remind one of Schoenberg’s Erwärtung or Gurre-Lieder, which tells us that she had an open ear to all the new musical changes of her time. With that being said, it’s a shame that the singer, Nicholas Phan, has a strained, unsteady voice with some quite ugly tones in it. I could almost imagine a really fine singer like Daniel Behle singing this as well as her most famous song which follows, Waving Farewell, written in the same style. Thank God this is the last we hear of him on this CD. (Note: There’s an excellent version of Waving Farewell available on YouTube, sung by soprano Zdenka Kareninová, which you can access HERE.)
I was really struck by the originality and creativity of her Suite en Miniature, a piece that again combined elements of French music with early Schoenberg, the latter in the “Praeludium” which, built around mysterious lead lines, constantly shifting harmonies and string tremolos, is reminiscent of that composer’s Verklärte Nacht. The remaining three movements, however, are light, airy and lyrical, a very different style (and, I believe, a mistake because the “Praeludium” promised so much more).
Happily, we end with a fine work, her Piano Concerto of 1935. Everything falls into place here, Romantic sweep combined with French and Eastern European harmonies, although I felt that a stronger, more emotionally involved pianist (Elisaveta Blumina or Jenny Lin would have been excellent) would have delivered a better performance. As it is, Amy I-Lin Cheng tinkles her little heart out at the keyboard, technically brilliant but always on the surface of the music, never really involved in it. This is in stark contrast to the orchestra, which plays its part with energy and involvement. But again, we have access to a better performance of this work by pianist Alice Rajnohova, conductor Tomáš Hanus and the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic HERE.
As a good introduction to Kaprálová’s orchestral works, then, this is an OK CD, but my complaints listed above, though they may seem niggling to some, were to me more disturbing. Eastern European composers wrote music that had a very strong and direct emotional profile, just as Eastern European conductors generally delivered, and still deliver, emotionally powerful performances. Since Kaprálová studied composition with Bohuslav Martinů and conducting with both Talich and Charles Munch, I doubt that her music was presented in such a Hollywood-movie-music fashion as it is on this disc. But since alternate recordings of all these pieces are not easy to come by, and this is the first-ever recording of Sad Evening, I recommend it with the above qualifications.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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