Kabelác’s Symphonies Nos 1-8 conducted by Marko Ivanovic

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LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-8
PERFORMER: Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marko Ivanovic


Miloslav Kabelác (1908-79) is undoubtedly the most significant 20th-century Czech composer of the generation following Martinu. An almost exact contemporary of Shostakovich, he suffered greatly under the tyranny of two oppressive regimes. During the German occupation, he was forced to relinquish a post at Prague Radio on account of his wife being Jewish. But the experience of living and working in communist post-war Czechoslovakia proved just as difficult. Since Kabelác was not prepared to pay lip service to the ideology of Socialist Realism, his work was frequently marginalised.

The eight symphonies, composed between 1941 and 1970, document the anguish of Kabelác’s life in music that is powerful and driven by obsessive almost suffocating melodic and rhythmic patterns. Somewhat unusually, each symphony is conceived for very different forces, but one unifying element is his fondness for using percussion.

The cycle opens with a work for strings and percussion that inhabits the same highly-charged mood as Martinu’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. In the remarkable Third, for organ, brass and timpani, Kabelác explores primeval sounds that recall Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass.  Elsewhere, Kabelác invokes similarly bleak landscapes to Shostakovich, as in the haunting funereal tread of the Adagio in the Fifth Symphony, scored for the unusual combination of wordless soprano and orchestra. Even where he is aiming for a more playful mode of expression, as in the Finale of the Fourth, dark undercurrents are never far from the surface.

The experience of the Prague Spring in 1968 proved especially cathartic for Kabelác who employed an expanded harmonic and textural palette in his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Yet although the level of dissonance is higher in these late works, Kabelác’s directness and accessibility are never compromised.

Conductor Marko Ivanovic deserves special plaudits for bringing this fascinating music to our attention. He secures strong and committed playing from the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Supraphon’s recordings are vivid. However, it’s a pity that room could not be found in the booklet to print the texts for the spoken recitation in the Seventh and choral sections of the Eighth.


Erik Levi