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Václav Neumann in rehearsal
Bedrich SMETANA Overture – The Bartered Bride
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Overture – Leonora No.3
Südfunk-Sinfonieorchester/Václav Neumann
Filmed in Stuttgart, 1968/1969. All regions. Picture format 4:3. B&W, mono sound. Directed by Dieter Ertl. Subtitle languages: English, German, French, Spanish
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101059 [99:00]

There is much to fascinate here, whether the general music-lover, the specialist or even conductors themselves, though equally there is as much to frustrate.
As I have pointed out in my review elsewhere on this site of the EMI DVD Legendary British Performers, the TV presentation back in the 1960s and 1970s was often dreadful. But we must be thankful for this archival material. Neumann (1920-1995) was a renowned and respected Czech conductor, formerly a viola player, who had a more than decent career in East Germany until the Russian invasion of his homeland in 1968. At that point he returned to his native country as principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, worked much in Germany and Austria, and - like fellow Czech Rafael Kubelik - lived long enough to witness the end of communism though by then both men had retired through ill-health.
These rehearsals seem to have been fairly certainly ‘scripted’; there’s a lot of excessive talk, eliciting no response from glum (mostly) men. It’s all hugely disciplined, the whole band downing instruments as one whenever Neumann has something he wants to say, or he wants to tell his ‘audience’ in his quaint German. These days one can’t really get away with telling an orchestra the story of Fidelio or the Bartered Bride, to put any given moment of either overture into context. Mind you he manages to make a political comment on Florestan’s struggle against the mighty Pizarro, alluding in allegorical terms to a plus ça change situation in the 1968 present-day but reaction continues to remain glum.
The television direction has a habit of either overstaying its welcome on a player -  none of them photogenic, all of them glum - or a section, or of just being in the wrong place. Only in the concert performance do we see Neumann bring off the awkward tempo change for the strings at the final Allegro. He is extremely tactful in praising his players, so much so that one wonders why he has therefore stopped, raising suspicions of wanting to say something despite the playing not because of it, always risky and bound to produce more glum faces of course.
Neumann was not the most graceful of conductors but he knew what he wanted and, on the evidence of the performances which conclude each sequence of this fascinating DVD, he got it.
Christopher Fifield


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