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CD: AmazonUK
Download: Classicsonline

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dances, op.46 (1878) [33:58]
Slavonic Dances, op.72 (1887) [31:46]
Carnival overture, op.92 (1891) [9:05]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Váčlav Talich
rec. EMI Abbey Road studio no.1, London; 27 November 1935 (op.46 and op.72) and 28 November 1935 (op.92). ADD
Experience Classicsonline

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.

In 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 music-making. 

Although 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. 

Competition 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. 

Even 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.

Rob Maynard


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