Largely because it was locked away beyond the Iron Curtain for
decades, The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s profile was somewhat
subdued in the post-war west.
It became – like the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra or the Dresden Staatskapelle
– one of those bands that could rarely be heard live and was primarily
known by the often enterprising recordings it made on the Czechoslovak
state’s own Supraphon label.
many listeners’ minds, therefore, the CPO c.1950-c.1990 was
categorised as an “Eastern European” orchestra.
But, as the better informed will know, Prague, the orchestra’s
home, is actually considerably to the west
of Vienna and, as this disc - originally recorded in London
almost 75 years ago - usefully reminds us, the pre-war Czech
orchestra was among the most cosmopolitan and widely toured
of European orchestras and at the very heart of continental
its very first concert had been conducted by Dvorak himself
in 1896, the CPO seems to have made little impression outside
Prague in its first couple of
decades. The first Chief
Conductor Ludvik Ćelanský (1901-1903)
was a musical lightweight who specialised in Offenbach and comic opera while
his successor, the rather obscure Vilém
Zemánek (1903-1918) appears to have left little artistic mark.
Taking up the reins at the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic, Váčlav
Talich (1883-1961) was to all intents
and purposes the real founder of the modern CPO and its Chief
Conductor 1919-1931 and 1934-1941. He spent the intervening
three years heading up, of all things, the Stockholm Concert
Society. Talich led, in total, no less than 924 CPO concerts and set
his artistic stamp firmly on the orchestra.
Moreover, his foreign tours and his willingness to work
in the recording studio raised the inter-war CPO’s reputation
to the highest level.
Talich’s interpretations of music by Dvořák (and Suk) were always widely regarded as benchmarks against which
others must be judged. Supraphon’s
recent “24 bit digitally re-mastered” 17-CD Václav Talich Special Edition has done a great deal to bring
his achievements into proper focus.
Interestingly enough, Supraphon
chose to open its series with the two sets of Slavonic Dances
- though in a later 1950 recording - SU38212 - as well as
reissuing a 1955 Czech Television performance of both on DVD
(SU70109). Comparisons show that the EMI recordings under review
here are consistently more sprightly
than those post-war performances, although one should never
discount the imperative on conductors recording 78 rpm sides
to watch the clock. Whether in 1935, 1950 or 1955, however, Talich is intuitively idiomatic and consistently enjoyable
to listen to. Personally,
I even find that the inevitable limitations of this oldest recording’s
sound complement the rustic, often bucolic charm of this “peasant”
music in a way that more sonically sophisticated modern recordings
cannot do, though I do appreciate that that is a matter of taste.
in this popular repertoire is intense, with much-favoured accounts
from the likes of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra as
taped in the 1960s (Sony Classical SBK48161) and Rafael Kubelik
and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded a decade
later (Deutsche Grammophon 4693662). Both
Szell and Kubelik,
like Talich, had close and long-standing
connections with Prague. Szell
had been Chief Conductor at the city’s German Opera House in
the 1930s and set down a classic account of Dvořák’s
cello concerto, with Pablo Casals as soloist, with the CPO in
1937 (EMI Références CDH7634982); Kubelik
had actually been Talich’s successor
as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor, remaining in charge until
the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948.
if one or both of those first-class accounts are already on your
shelves I would still suggest adding Talich’s. While these may not be the sort of intellectually
taxing scores that ipso
facto lend themselves to a wide variety of alternative interpretations,
Dvořák’s writing is just the sort of life-affirming
and enjoyable music to perk us up in these currently stressful
times, especially when heard in atmospheric and highly accomplished
performances such as those on this new disc.