Don’t look away just because the composer’s name is unfamiliar and has too many syllables. Kaprálová (1915-1940) is a vital link in Czech music, her death at 25 the closure of a century of genius. Daughter of a Leoš Janáček student and herself the secret lover of Bohuslav Martinů, Kaprálová flowered in France and Britain in the last years before the Second World War. In addition to composing she was an active conductor, the first woman to raise a baton on BBC television – unscreened, in an experimental studio – and she was widely praised at a London international festival of contemporary music.
Aged 22 she went to Paris to study with Martinů who talked of leaving his wife and starting a new life with her in America. Kaprálová tired of his dithering and in April 1940 married a man her own age, Jiri Mucha. Two weeks later she was taken to hospital in Montpellier with tuberculosis. She died on the day France surrendered to the Germans. Some believe she was the model for Martinů’s ghostly opera, Julietta. His fifth string quartet is an intense chronicle of their love.
And what of Kaprálová’s music? This comprehensive account of her piano music gives strong hints of where she was heading. A sonata appassionata of 1933 takes percussive elements from Bartók and its elliptical narrative lines from Janáček; the voice is powerful but not yet formed.
Her piano masterpiece dates from 1937 and is dedicated to the pianist Rudolf Firkusny, who had introduced her to Martinů. Dubnova Preluda (April preludes) calls to mind the Slavonic fixation with climate, from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons to Janáček’s In the Mists, with a touch of April in Paris. Kaprálová’s expression is uniquely her own, inflected with hints of Debussy and Berg but original, vivacious and captivating. Just nine minutes long, it gives the strongest possible indication of her untapped potential. With Kaprálová’s tragic death and her country’s totalitarian subjugation, Czech music went flat for a very long time. Giorgio Koukl’s chronicle of her life at the piano provides compelling listening.