Czech orchestral star-gazing

The deadly calm that opens Miloslav Kabeláč’s 25-minute passacaglia-like Mystery of Time (Supraphon SU 4312-2, c£14.50) does not bode well, the constant heartbeat at the start of the piece soon quickening, Kabeláč’s instrumentation like a concerto for orchestra that follows on the heals of Honegger, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski and (especially) Hartmann – possibly the nearest points of reference for this magnificent music – time’s mystery anything but consoling.

The tension mounts layer on layer until towards the end the bass drum punctuates musical sentences and the work retreats to a soulful whimper, albeit in an ambiguous major key.  Kabeláč ‘s intention was to escape the grip of an authoritarian regime by looking up to the star-studded sky (he was fascinated by space and the cosmos generally). Like so many Czechs of the period (his dates are 1908-1979) he had known the evils of authoritarianism from both the right and the left, his Jewish pianist wife presenting him with an impossible quandary during the Nazi era: either divorce her or face expulsion from his job at Prague Radio. Needless to say, being a man of principle, he chose the latter option. And yes, his music was banned.

Marko Ivanovic conducts the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra with some distinction as part of an all-Kabeláč programme that also includes Hamlet Improvisations (marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth), Reflections and Metamorphoses II, composed just a few weeks before Kabeláč’s death. If you want an immediate sampling of Mystery of Time you can watch Jacub Hrusa conduct the piece on

I cannot recommend this Supraphon CD highly enough, but I should also point you in the direction of the same artists performing Kabelác’s highly impressive cycle of eight symphonies (SU 4202 2, 4 cds, c£33.75), the Fifth of which, ‘Drammatica’ – a large-scale wordless vocalise for soprano (here Pavla Vykopalová) and orchestra – music that Kabeláč viewed as the opposite to his Mystery of Time, looking into her/his heart rather than up among the stars. There are parts of this 1960 score that anticipate a now-popular masterpiece composed sixteen years hence, Górecki’s Third Symphony. I’d suggest you sample either the third or fourth movements.

The 7th Symphony, using texts from the Gospel of St John and The book of Revelation employs a reciter (here Lukás Hlavica) alongside the orchestra whereas the last symphony of all (words again taken from the Bible) is scored for soprano, mixed choir, percussion and organ. Britten is a possible prompt this time but maybe the best place to sample in the first place, symphonies-wise, is the ostinato-style finale of the First, music that heats then cools, always thinking while driving (though always with eyes on the road). I’d definitely call this the greatest Czech symphony cycle after Martinu and a must-have acquisition for anyone interested in 20th century orchestral music.

One thought on “Czech orchestral star-gazing

  1. Tully Potter

    Yes, Rob, of course I know some of Miloslav Kabeláč’s music.

    I wasn’t really placing his name correctly.

    All the best,




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