HUSA: Symphony No. 2, “Reflections.” 3 Frescoes. Music for Prague 1968 / Prague Symphony Orch.; Tomás Brauner, cond / Supraphon SU4294-2
Up until now, I had exactly one piece of music by Karel Husa (1921-2016) in my collection, the Stele for Solo Violin, thus this recording came as a bit of a revelation to me. Apparently Husa is much better known in France and the United States than in his native country. This is because he left Czechoslovakia at the age of 26 to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Arthur Honegger, staying there to premiere his first String Quartet in 1950 which won him the Lili Boulanger Prize that year and the Bilthoven Festival Prize the following year. in 1954 he emigrated to the United States, where he became a professor at Cornell University. Among his pupils, says Wikipedia, were Steven Stucky, Christopher Rouse and David Conte. He also lectured at Ithaca College from 1967 to 1986. The last piece on this CD, Music for Prague 1968, was a memorial to the Soviet invasion of his native country which became one of his most famous compositions.
Although there are other recordings of these works available, I purposely avoided listening to them beforehand because I wanted to see if these recordings impressed me on their own without comparisons. They did. Conductor Tomás Brauner, on whom I found lots of “biographical” information telling me that he’s one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation but not what year he was born (so how do I know which generation he belongs to??), really digs into this music with an intensity that reminded me of the late Vaclav Talich. The second symphony is indeed very much like Honegger, utilizing astringent harmonies and orchestration to create and sustain a tense atmosphere. The undercurrent of menace in the first movement is absolutely gripping, thanks in large measure to Husa’s score but also to Brauner’s conducting. The fast second movement opens with a duo played by woodblocks and tympani which lasts nearly a full minute before sharp, stabbing strings enter the picture. Jumpy figures played by the lower strings are juxtaposed against the percussion, followed by staccato figures played by the upper strings, winds and brass. It’s kind of a perpetuum mobile with a sinister bent.
The third movement is similarly tense, and here Husa uses mixed chromatic chords in close proximity to one another in a way that suggests Ligeti. My impression of the 3 Frescoes was of music that, while cut from the same cloth, has a somewhat different feel to it: still somewhat tense but not quite as menacing, with somewhat lyrical phrases played in the top line by solo instruments which, if divorced from the edgy harmonic base, would sound quite lyrical. But then, the music jumps into high gear, things start sounding more threatening, and we’re off to one of Husa’s races. I should also add that these “3 Frescoes” are virtually a symphony, not only in structure but also in length, the first movement running 9:38, the second (more lyrical but still somewhat ominous), eventually reaching Mahlerian proportions of menace 6:44. and the last movement, which starts out relatively mellow but immediately jumps into a sort of menacing march which later morphs and develops into a fugue (while still remaining menacing), 8:40.
Then we reach Music for Prague 1968, which is considered to be one of Husa’s great masterpieces. By now we know what his basic moods and harmonic language is like, so that’s not much of a surprise, but here he also introduces elements of delicacy into his music, such as the high flute solo that opens the “Introduction,” followed by fluttering winds as the solo flute returns. With the arrival of ominous brass fanfares and occasional pounding tympani, one can easily imagine the Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia. At one point in this work, Husa also references a bit of Smetana’s Ma Vlast, a tip of the cap to Vaclav Talich’s classic 1954 recording of the work that he intended as a protest to the Soviet occupation of his homeland. The “Interlude” opens with soft, almost muffled snare drum rolls, followed by soft percussion (chimes, triangle, xylophone) playing rhythmic figures in the foreground. Husa keeps this up for the entire length of the movement (4:21), with the snare drum eventually increasing in volume, becoming more dominant and aggressive, and thus leading into the quirky, almost confused melee of the last movement, “Toccata and Chorale.”
This is quite the intense disc, superbly recorded and lacking nothing in either virtuosity of execution by the musicians in the orchestra or intensity in performance. Very highly recommended.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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