Great Conductors - Talich
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Sokol March: Into a New Life Op. 35c [6:04]
Serenade for Strings in E flat Op. 6 [28:07]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 6 in D Op. 60 [44:24]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Vaclav Talich
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London 22-23 November 1938
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.112050 [78:35]

These recordings, as the surprisingly entertaining liner-notes tell us, very nearly did not happen. The members of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra were, in November 1938, nearly all enlisted in the Czechoslovak army, scattered across various military outposts on the nation’s borders during the run-up to World War II. Seven weeks after Hitler annexed the Sudetenland and four months before he grabbed the rest of Czechoslovakia, a brief window of opportunity opened up in which the orchestra members were given leave to pack their instruments for a short trip to London. The arrangements were made by Jan Masaryk, Czechoslovak envoy to London and a future Supraphon pianist himself.

In a matter of just two days Talich and his orchestra hunkered down in the EMI Abbey Road Studios and recorded Dvorák’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, plus Josef Suk’s Serenade for Strings and Sokol March. All those recordings are here except the Seventh, which was released by Naxos on a previous CD coupled to a 1935 version of the Eighth. The Czechs being, even then, one of the finest orchestras in the world, there is no sign of hurry, no evidence of sloppy playing or lack of preparation, no need for more rehearsal time. I have grown sick of the cliché of performers having music ‘in their blood,’ but there are few recordings for which that phrase would be more appropriate.

In the Suk Serenade, which sounds so plainly lovely but is in fact hard to conduct right, Talich thankfully avoids any temptation to rush or hurry the music. This is the trap into which Christopher Warren-Green and the London Chamber Orchestra fall on Virgin Classics; another trap is restraint, or an unwillingness to let the music be as pretty as possible, and here the guilty parties are Volker Hartung and the European Philharmonic on Profil.

No, this is a lovely, very romantic performance, one in which the soloists - violin and cello in the first movement, two violins and cello in the slow movement - indulge in frequent portamenti and the overall speeds convey a just-right sense of youthful charm and the peace of the outdoors. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer is vastly superior to EMI’s own re-mastering, which cleaned up the hiss but at the expense of clarity. The Naxos recording features less in the way of shrill first violins and greater presence for the rest of the band. This is, alongside the Capella Istropolitana recording under Jaroslav Krcek on Naxos (the first Naxos disc I ever owned), one of the great performances of the Suk Serenade, and there is room on my shelf for both. Talich’s recording of the brief, exuberant Sokol March, currently unavailable anywhere else (previously recorded by Altrichter, Kubelik and Klima), makes a festive opener.

Now, on to the main course: Dvorák’s Sixth. The opening bars are slow, dangerously slow maybe, but the Czech Philharmonic is just getting ready. This is, above all, a performance in the classic romantic style, very generous in rubato and phrasing, very flexible in tempos. Nowhere are its merits more apparent than in the slow movement, at 13:28 the slowest I have ever heard this music (compare to 12:18 for Mackerras, 11:30 for Kubelík and Kertesz, 11:01 for Ancerl, or 10:13 for Suitner). But, against expectations, I actually found myself more engaged by the music than in any more hurried performance: Talich invites us to lap up every gorgeous woodwind solo at a pace which enables us to savour them.

And lest you think that the slow timing is the product of lethargy, the finale, by contrast, is given one of the fastest and most exciting renditions I know, a full two minutes faster than Mackerras or Kubelík. The string fugato at the beginning of the coda loses some of its clarity and heft at this speed, but there is certainly no lack of thrills. The only other major fault I can find with this performance is the near-total lack of presence for the timpani, which in the first movement might as well not exist. Unfortunately, I do not have the Supraphon reissue of this performance to compare sound quality.

All in all, these are great performances by any standard, historical or not, with the Dvorák slow movement going to the top of my list and the Suk a delight from beginning to end. With playing this marvellous, and this idiomatically Bohemian, captured in re-mastered sound this easy to enjoy, and the excellent booklet notes are a bonus. Lovers of Czech music ought to hear this no matter how many recordings of these works they already own.

Brian Reinhart

The slow movement of Dvorák’s Sixth will take your breath away, but the rest is good too