Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no.1 in C minor op.68 [45:23]
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no.4 in F minor op.36 [43:29]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik
rec. 21 April 1952 (Brahms), 19-20 November 1951 (Tchaikovsky), Concert Hall, Chicago
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR361/2 [45:23 + 43:29]

Many of these “Forgotten Records” have revived the names of totally or partially forgotten artists. I doubt if Rafael Kubelik will ever enter that category. Yet, what most people remember about his period with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is that he was hounded out of the job by the vitriolic pen of critic Claudia Cassidy. No doubt this is part of the truth. I must say though, that in an extensive interview with an Italian music magazine around 1980 – I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to lay my hands on this now – Kubelik attributed the debacle principally to his insistence on introducing repertoire such as Mahler and the Second Viennese School which the Chicago big-wigs didn’t want to hear. He described how, when a part of the audience staged a noisy march-out, he adjusted the pace of the music he was conducting so as to have them march out in time to it. Perhaps this sort of adolescent behaviour – he was still very young – did his cause at least as much harm as anything Cassidy could do.

As for his recordings in Chicago, works by Mussorgsky, Smetana, Dvorák and Mozart, all on Mercury, have been revived and lauded. I was unaware that he had also recorded Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I see now that there was also a Tchaikovsky 6th, now available on Forgotten Records, but no other Brahms. When I began collecting records, Kubelik was something of a hero of mine on account of his recently-issued Dvorák 8 with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG). That still seems to me an enthralling account. Later, I found his cycle of Beethoven symphonies (also DG) one of the more satisfying integral sets. It was with some puzzlement, therefore, that I discovered that he had recorded, with the Vienna Philharmonic no less, cycles of Brahms (Decca) and late Tchaikovsky (EMI) symphonies. These had already sunk without trace from the catalogue by my student days and have been seldom sighted since.

There is a detailed Kubelik discography easily available to Googlers. I see that further versions of this music, generally with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, have been made available. Nevertheless, to judge from this site it is the Chicago versions which are most valued by the conductor’s fans.

The Brahms opens majestically. In the quiet, drooping phrases that follow, the tempo slackens a little. Kubelik’s care over phrasing compensates to some extent. The Allegro is stately rather than dynamic. This does allow gentle, lyrical phrasing of the contrasting material without undue tempo changes. Kubelik maintains the textures light and transparent so his slowness is totally different from that of certain Kapellmeisterly readings. The middle movements are very nicely done. I’m only a little worried that I remember so little about them beyond a general sense of agreement with what was happening. The introduction to the finale is brooding rather than dramatic and the big theme of the Allegro is warm and leisurely. This approach scores a particular success when, just before the recapitulation of the second theme, Brahms brings back the “Bell motive”, first heard on the horn in the introduction, in a dramatic, syncopated passage. In order to make sense of this moment, even such classically-oriented conductors as Toscanini and Boult put on the brakes. Only Herman Scherchen sticks inflexibly to his original tempo and shows, up to a point, that Brahms can be taken literally. Kubelik, with his already broad tempo, manages to incorporate this moment with only minimal slowing. In the coda, too, the chorale theme takes its logical place in the scheme of things without being either drawn out interminably or barged through dogmatically.

A very musical but somewhat underpowered performance, then. The thought arises that this, of all four symphonies, is logically the least amenable to such an approach. I shall therefore look forward to hearing Kubelik’s VPO and BRSO Brahms cycles at some later date.

The Tchaikovsky arouses more uncertain feelings. A fan at the site mentioned above professes himself unable to understand why Kubelik’s Tchaikovsky has been so unenthusiastically treated by French critics. And, I would add, British ones. I’m afraid I can understand it all too well. What I cannot understand is why a conductor whose Dvorák is too freely romantic for some, directs Tchaikovsky like a metronome. It isn’t that I want a libertarian approach. Frankly, I don’t think anyone could call Mravinsky indulgent. Nor Markevich in general, though his recording of this particular symphony is notorious for some oddly wilful touches. And also famous for the gut conviction with which it is done. Take Kubelik in the wind phrases at the recapitulation of the second subject. Or in the later stages of the second movement. There seems a deliberate refusal to allow the music its brooding colours, it’s all too gentle and suave. And in the finale Kubelik himself becomes wilful, inserting a semi-comma before the last two notes of the “leafy birch-tree” theme. The effect is pedantic.

Above all, I find Tchaikovsky shorn of the element that has always drawn a wide spectrum of listeners to his music – compassion. Tchaikovsky speaks of his own sufferings, but in such a way as to bring a message of hope and consolation to listeners who share his torments. Kubelik politely sweeps all this under the carpet. More than Tchaikovsky, what we have here is “Anti-Tchaikovsky”. But for the obvious care with which it is prepared, I would have guessed I was hearing a gifted, musical conductor and a fine orchestra sight-reading a piece by a composer hitherto unknown to them and whose style they have simply not grasped.

The recordings are very good for their date. If you are a Kubelik fan you had better make up your own mind. I can certainly understand why Chicago audiences, well aware no doubt of the thrusting performances of these two works Munch was accustomed to give over in Boston, felt they were getting a poor deal.

Christopher Howell

Gentle and musical if underpowered Brahms. The Tchaikovsky seems to miss the point entirely.