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Great Czech Conductors - Karel Šejna
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le nozze di Figaro, K 492 - Overture** [4:22]
Symphony No. 38 in D major, Prague, K 504 [22:17]
La clemenza di Tito, K 621 - Overture [4:51]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Pastoral, Op. 68 [38:37]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, Unfinished, D 759 [23:14]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major [51:57]
Maria Tauberová (soprano)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Šejna
rec. 19 November 1962 (Figaro) 7 August & 11 September 1953 (Sy 38) 5 April 1956 (Tito) 6, 7, 9 March 1953 (Beethoven) 3 May 1950 (Schubert) 6, 7, 29 April, 2 May 1950 (Mahler) Rudolfinum, Prague; Domovina Studio (Schubert; Mahler). AAD, Mono/**Stereo
SUPRAPHON SU4081-2 [70:31 + 75:20]

Experience Classicsonline

The booklet note bears the rather sad title: ‘“Second-in-Command” for Fifty Years’ but it seems to reflect the story of Karel Šejna’s career. Šejna (1896-1982) began his musical life as a double bass player. In 1921, within a year of leaving the Prague Conservatory, he became solo bass player with the Czech Philharmonic. Petr Kadlec relates in his useful notes that over the following years, apparently with the encouragement of Václav Talich, he gradually established himself as a conductor, both with the Philharmonic and with other Czech ensembles. However, he seems always to have been the ‘nearly man’, standing in for other conductors, either for individual concerts or for periods of time, without ever establishing himself as a leading podium figure. At the Czech Philharmonic he was deputy first to Talich, then to Kubelik. When Kubelik went into exile in 1949 Šejna and Václav Neumann directed most of the Philharmonic’s concerts, with Šejna getting the lion’s share. However, what must have been a bitter disappointment lay just ahead. The orchestra’s players were given the opportunity to elect Kubelik’s successor and, according to Kadlec, over 80% of the votes went to Šejna in preference to Neumann, whereupon the Czech government installed Karel Ančerl as the new chief conductor. Šejna continued as the second-in-command, making a good number of recordings with the orchestra in addition to his concert appearances. His involvement began to decrease in the 1960s. His final concert with the Czech Philharmonic came in 1972, a full decade before his death.
That’s probably not the full story. Kadlec’s note seems good in terms of discussing Šejna’s career with the Czech Philharmonic but he says little about his conducting activities elsewhere; surely he must have appeared as a guest with other Czech orchestras and, quite possibly, abroad? The other weakness of the note is that, apart from quoting some contemporary critiques of a few of Šejna’s concerts, no real attempt is made to evaluate his work as a conductor or to place him in the pantheon of Czech conductors. I’m not sure how much this album, welcome though it is, helps in that regard. I’ve seen quite a bit of comment, much of it favourable, about Šejna’s recordings from contributors to MusicWeb International and by other reviewers but I’ve not heard much of his work myself. I came to this set hoping to get a rounded view of his work but I’m not convinced that this set gives us as full a picture as might have been the case.
Let it be said at once that the performances that are included make a favourable impression. However, it would have been nice to sample his Fibich (review) or his Novak (review). There’s also at least one set of recordings by him of Suk, about which Rob Barnett was most complimentary (review) and I believe there were also some recordings of Martinů. It’s a shame that Supraphon have not included so much as one example of Šejna in Czech music, restricting themselves instead to pretty standard repertoire.
Šejna’s Mozart is attractive. The overture to Le nozze di Figaro, set down in 1962,is lithe and bustling. In the 1953 recording of the Prague symphony - how appropriate! - we find his reading light on its feet and spruce in the first movement while there’s pleasing grace to be heard in the Andante and the finale is energetic and crisp. While not taking anything away from the conductor I’m sure it helps that we’re hearing a fine orchestra on very good form; but it’s Šejna who provides the leadership from the rostrum.
By now an impression is beginning to form of a very musical, no-nonsense conductor who knows what he wants and gets on with the task of leading the orchestra without fuss or affectation. That impression carries over into the Beethoven symphony, recorded in 1953. The first movement is intelligently paced, with excellent momentum, yet the music is never driven too fast. The playing of the Czech Philharmonic is alert and stylish. The Scene by the brook seems to me to be just right. There’s a nice, easy flow and everything sounds relaxed. In a charming reading the Czech woodwind principals are especially impressive. The third movement is ideally paced for a rustic dance and while I’ve heard fierier accounts of the Storm the movement is still convincing. The concluding hymn of thanksgiving is very well done: Šejna adopts an excellent speed which ensures that the music wears a smiling countenance and the orchestra plays splendidly for him.
The recording of the Schubert Unfinished symphony dates from 1950 and it’s a good one. Again, Šejna does nothing extraordinary: instead everything is in proportion and the conductor has a very sane and sensible view of the music. If all that sounds dull, rest assured; it isn’t. In the first movement Šejna brings out the dramatic element of the music, albeit not as strongly, perhaps, as one has heard from some conductors but still in such a way that’s very musical and satisfying. In the Andante con moto I’d have preferred just a touch more ‘moto’. However, Šejna’s speed is certainly not sluggish: perhaps I’m too used to hearing modern-day lean performances; after all Šejna was playing the piece in 1950 and his view is rooted firmly in the central European tradition, I’m sure. Yet again the response of the Czech Philharmonic is distinguished; note, for example, the lovely, limpid clarinet solo (2:35; 3:12), followed by equally good work from the principal oboist. I enjoyed this Schubert performance very much.
Mahler’s Fourth is an apposite choice because this work featured in Šejna’s last Czech Philharmonic concert, in 1972. This recording is much earlier: like the Schubert it dates from 1950 and Šejna had first conducted it back in 1938. It’s a reading that shows a fine understanding of the music. The performance of the first movement is quite splendid. It seems to me that Šejna handles the music, including the many tempo modifications, excellently and in such a way that everything sounds completely natural. His work is aided and abetted at every turn by marvellous playing by the orchestra. The second movement is beautifully pointed and there’s a good deal of excellent solo playing, not least from the orchestra’s leader. The tempo marking, Im gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast, is translated in the booklet as ‘Leisurely moving, without haste’ and Šejna gets it just right. Though the character of the music is leisurely there’s plenty of life in it also.
The heavenly third movement is beautifully shaped. Here the string section of the Czech Philharmonic really comes into its own, to excellent effect. Šejna has the measure of this movement and handles it expertly. He lets it unfold very naturally and is never self-indulgently slow yet the music has all the breadth it needs. The big climax (15:37 - 16:10) is not pulled about rhetorically but still makes its impact and the peaceful close is well done. In the finale Šejna conveys the naïve innocence - and the wilder moments - and he has a very good, clear soloist in Maria Tauberová. The last stanza (from 5:15) is wonderfully tender. This is a considerable account of the Mahler Fourth and the set would be worth acquiring simply for this performance.
The recordings have come up pretty well. The Beethoven is subject to some hiss and is a trifle on the thin side, while the third movement climax in the Mahler is a bit more than the recording techniques of the day could quite manage with comfort. However, the recordings reproduced very well on my equipment.
At the start of this review I suggested that the focus on mainstream repertoire prevented us from getting a rounded view of Karel Šejna’s abilities as a conductor. I still think that’s so. On the other hand, perhaps the fact that we hear him in this set in familiar repertoire is good because his capabilities can be more readily judged. Perhaps it was his misfortune that his career in Czechoslovakia coincided with those of three exceptional conductors, Talich, Kubelik and Ančerl. Furthermore, so far as I know, his career was pretty much confined to his homeland, unlike those of Kubelik and Ančerl. So, for much of the time he was obliged to live in the successive shadow of those great conductors. Though he may have been largely a “Second-in-Command” the recordings in this set show that there was nothing second rate about his conducting. This is a rewarding set which is well worth investigating.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Beethoven 6 ~~ Mahler 4 ~~ Mozart 38 

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