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Jaroslav Krombholc - An Anniversary Remembrance


Alan Watkins

On July 16 1983, at the comparatively early age of 65, there passed away one of the greatest musicians it has ever been my privilege to play for.

Jaroslav Krombholc passed away after a long battle against ill-health which had gone on for some years. Although perhaps not an international conductor in the sense in which the words are understood today, I believe he made a major contribution not only to Czech music-making but, in his various appearances abroad, was an early international protagonist for Czech composers, Janáček in particular. He was, I think, an exceptional interpreter of opera but his musical interests were wide and far-ranging and he was as enthusiastic about Ravel, Shostakovich, Debussy as he was for Czech native composers. He loved Three Little Liturgies by Messiaen, as but one example. I recall a performance of La Mer which I thought to be truly exceptional, the conductor stating that he had studied the score for three years before giving his first performance of the work in 1940 something.

He served many orchestras in the Czech Republic, Ostrava, both houses in Prague, and the Radio Orchestra. A pupil of Vaclav Talich, whom he revered, he nonetheless was a distinctive musical personality and towards the end of his life prepared his own performing edition of Ma Vlast which he used on his 1973 recording of the piece, an exceptional account in my opinion, restoring many of the balances and dynamics which had been altered through subsequent editions and performance practice. It is an account filled, in my opinion, with both nobility, elegance and drama in proportionate measure.

I recall his attention to detail in this work. The horn call to the warring maidens in Movement III Sarka was, he said, often too loud - he pointed out to the orchestra that if one consulted the text of the original "story" the call was heard from "afar off" across the valley. And so it is on his performance.

He was, in his time, also a noted interpreter of Czech contemporary music in particular that of Seidl and Dobias but many composers in the period from about 1938 onwards were grateful for his study and advocacy.

As a person he was much loved by his musicians. Always polite, he never raised his voice even once in my experience yet I believe sometimes achieved great performances. He was a musician for whom people really wished to play as well as they could, I believe. Rehearsals and performances with him were occasions one looked forward to. His operatic performances were a genuine "co-operative" attempt between his vocalists and the orchestra: he never intervened as the "star" performer as perhaps may happen from time to time. It was the end result which counted. If we were really bad at rehearsal he would take his glasses off, lay them down on the conductor rostrum, and then address us. That was serious stuff but only if he took his glasses off!

Perhaps I may interpolate a slightly funny story: how conductors interpret audience applause varies from conductor to conductor in my experience. Some milk it for all it is worth (and why not!) with sweeping bows so low you wonder if they may be at risk of toppling over. Not Mr K. When he came out they got one quick nod, with a smile, and then he turned immediately to the orchestra and you were in......there is preserved a wonderful example of this in his magnificent performance of Jenufa in Vienna in 1974.

There is tremendous applause when he comes out for Act II (remember they'd only heard Act I) and there are still a few claps going on when the orchestra blast their way into the wonderful beginning of Act II. He obviously did not behave any differently abroad. They just got that quick nod!

Unfortunately his health deteriorated to such an extent that he had to give up conducting and just a few weeks before his death his wife attended a performance of Vixen at the National Theatre, coming backstage afterwards to send his "best wishes" to the orchestra. Naturally there were many inquiries about his health and his wife, clearly distressed, remarked: "I fear for him. If you take his music away, he has nothing left......"

He was honoured with a documentary on Prague Radio/TV in the 1970s and the interviewer asked him: "How would you wish to be remembered?" He said, rather thrown by the question I thought: "Well, just as an interpreter who has brought music to the public but I hope I would also be remembered by my musicians for without them I probably might not have amounted to much. I can only suggest: it is they who interpret my suggestions. I have tried to make it a partnership and I would hope I have been successful. My admiration for our players remains undiminished."

I think he is, and was, remembered by his musicians. On the day of his funeral so many wished to attend that both the matinee performances at the National Theatre and the State Opera were cancelled. It is also pleasing to me that, although not a "star" name, at least some of his performances can be remembered and enjoyed through his recordings.

In remembrance Jaroslav Krombholc, musician, born Prague January 30 1918, died in that city July 16 1983.


Alan M. Watkins


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