Great Czech Conductors: Rafael Kubelík
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No 8 in G, Op 88 (B 163) [37:52]
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op 33 (B 63; ed. Kurz) [37:09]
Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 9 in E flat, Op 70 [27:10]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No 4, H 305 [31:53]
Memorial to Lidice, H 296 [9:09]
Václav DOBIÁS (1909-1978)
Stalingrad Cantata [11:34]
Rudolf Firkusný (piano) (Dvorák); Zdenek Otava (baritone), Army Recitation Corps, Typografia Male Chorus (Dobiás)
Czech Philharmonic/Rafael Kubelík
rec. 30 November 1944 (Dvořák Symphony), 7 November 1945 (Dobiás), 13 December 1945 (Shostakovich), “probably” 14-15 March 1946 (Memorial to Lidice), Smetana Hall; 4 June 1946 (Dvořák Concerto), Rudolfinum; 10 June 1948, Domovina Studio (Martinů Symphony), Prague, Czech Republic
SUPRAPHON SU 4080-2 [75:01 + 79:44]
This is an excellent collection honoring Rafael Kubelík. The two jam-packed CDs of live 1940s broadcasts include his central repertoire, works he championed very early on, and indeed multiple world-premiere recordings. Not least is the first-ever recording of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, a live concert dating from December 1946; we also get a live reading of Dvorak’s Piano Concerto with Rudolf Firkusny, from the first-ever Prague Spring festival, and, although the booklet doesn’t identify the premiere recordings, I’d be surprised if any earlier performances of the Martinů Fourth Symphony or Memorial to Lidice, or Dobiás’ Stalingrad Cantata, exist.
The collection begins with Dvorak’s Eighth, in quite constricted sound - turn up the volume more than normal - but glittering with the kind of brilliance Kubelík brought to the piece for his entire career. Aside from a prominent trumpet flub in the finale, it’s a highly accomplished live reading by the Czech Philharmonic, revealing they and the conductor were masters of the symphony even in the besieged year of 1944. The piano concerto, in sound which suggests that the orchestra is playing somewhere very far away, nevertheless powers forward with energy and vigor. Firkusny plays the old “revised” piano part, with the absolute command which explains why he has long been associated with this piece. Luckily for us, the recording of his piano is much better than we’d expect from the murky-sounding orchestra. Firkusny’s cadenza is especially fine, although more recent interpreters - Aimard with Harnoncourt, say - are more to my liking in the poetic slow movement with its beautiful opening horn solo.
Shostakovich’s Ninth - the first recording of the work - is given a performance unlike any since. The outer movements are remarkably speedy affairs, with some live sloppiness but a lot of spirit and neoclassical sharpness; by contrast the second movement sprawls over ten minutes, the slowest I’ve ever heard it. Compare 10:33 to Vasily Petrenko’s 8:46, Leonard Bernstein’s 8:10, or indeed Rudolf Barshai’s 5:43. The scherzo is rather languid, too. All in all a fascinating account of how different it is from the way the symphony is performed today, and it’s worth overlooking the constant audience noise. What may cause distress is the fact that distortion in the tape results in the entire symphony sounding like it is being performed in E rather than E flat!
Bohuslav Martinů’s Fourth, a celebratory masterpiece inflected with joy, energy, and inner peace, receives a great performance here (1948). It’s hard to imagine a more thrilling scherzo than Kubelík’s, whirling forward in a great rush of excitement, but by contrast he really milks the gorgeous romanticism of the slow movement, unafraid to play up the different moods - doubt at the beginning, something very like love after 6:00. Belohlávek’s recent recording on Onyx with the BBC Symphony may be preferable in the finale, where the new account’s freer tempos underscore the triumph of the ending, which Kubelík - maybe intentionally - leaves more ambivalent. The recorded sound is sufficient to give the orchestral piano its place, although you will miss some bass lines and timpani and the incredible colors of the opening pages. Supraphon engineers have, as elsewhere, used technology which removes the hisses and pops but at the expense of a slightly constricted acoustic.
The disc is rounded out with Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice - a moving rendition which goes more slowly and tragically than many, although Eschenbach’s reading on Ondine is the most anguished I’ve heard - and a novelty, the Stalingrad Cantata of Václav Dobiás. Written in 1945, the cantata for baritone, male chorus, and orchestra is an eleven-minute paean to the Soviet forces, or at least I’m assuming so, because the sung texts are not provided. The music sounds a bit like a ramshackle Nevsky Cantata, with the same wildness and raw masculine energy but without the tunes or distinction. It counts as a welcome rarity, though, because recordings of Dobiás are otherwise basically non-existent.
These are valuable historical broadcasts all around, then, from the world premiere recordings of Shostakovich’s Ninth and probably a few other works too, to the Dvorak concerto from the first Prague Spring festival. Rafael Kubelík’s conducting is consistently superb and insightful; his Martinů is energetic but powerful, his Shostakovich like nobody else. This can all be had in more modern recordings - the Dvořák symphony from Mackerras or Kubelík himself, the Martinů from Belohlávek or Thomson - but as a two-disc monument to Kubelík’s superb work with the Czech Philharmonic, this can’t be beaten. For a one-CD tribute to that pairing of great artists, though, we must remember the unforgettable Smetana concert they gave after the end of the Cold War.
The spotty sound can’t hide a superb collection of very early Kubelik recordings, including numerous world premieres.
Masterwork Index: Dvorak Symphony 8 ~~ Shostakovich Symphony 9