The Czech composer Vitezlava Kapralova died in the early weeks of the German occupation of France at the age of 25. Two months before, she had married Jiri Mucha, son of the fin-de-siècle poster artist. She had everything to live for and yet embraced agonies of death with great dignity. The mystery and tragedy of her existence has been explored in a couple of novels but her psychology remains an enigma and her music is hard to categorise.
At first impression it falls midway between Leos Janacek — who was her father’s teacher — and Bohuslav Martinu, who was her lover; yet first impressions are misleading and there is much in this new compilation to indicate that Kapralova’s voice was very much her own.
She had moved to Paris in 1937 to study with Martinu whom she had met in Prague while he was preparing the premiere of Julietta, his signature opera about a fantasy lover. Martinu, who was married became obsessed with Kapralova and, as war loomed, tried to help her escape with him to America. Left penniless after the Germans entered Prague and dried up her scholarship funds, the young composer fell in with a garret full of Czech students and married one of them, knowing she was suffering from a severe illness, which may have been tuberculosis or typhus. Her last words were, “It is Julietta.” A sense of doom pervades her work, mitigated by a perpetual mischief.
A Prelude de Noel that she wrote in 1939 contains an unmistakable swipe at Deutschland über alles. Her Miliary Sinfonietta has the subversiveness of Jaroslav Hasek’s fictional soldier Schweik. Kaparlova conducted the sinfonietta at the BBC for the opening of a 1938 contemporary music festival.
The title track in this album is a valediction for baritone and orchestra, distinctly darker than the soft-hued music Martinu was writing at the time. A piano concerto in D minor opens with what she prescribes as an allegro entuiastico although it never sounds quite like that. The solo line is muted and contemplative to the point of introspection: late Rachmaninov meets young Messiaen.
The performances recorded here by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Kenneth Kiesler fall a couple of marks below summa cum laude, but the music speaks plainly for itself, speaking directly to some of our present confusions. Kapralova was a talent of rare eloquence and self-possession, too good to remain lost in the mists of time.
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