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This 8-CD box devoted to the art of Jiří Bělohlávek is a representative collection of his career in the studios. The survey includes six recordings previously unreleased on CD: Suk’s Fairy Tale, Op.16, Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba, Ravel’s Ma mčre l’Oye and the Pavane, and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.
His first recordings date from the years when he was conductor of the Brno Philharmonic, an appointment that followed his success the previous year as a finalist in the Karajan International Conducting Competition. In 1977 he took on the Prague Symphony, Václav Smetáček’s old orchestra, before Bělohlávek succeeded Neumann at the Czech Philharmonic in 1990 – a short-lived venture, though he continued to conduct and record with them. He founded the Prague Philharmonia in 1994, directed the BBC Symphony and finally returned to helm the Czech Philharmonic in more harmonious circumstances in 2012.
Each disc here offers something that reflects aspects of his career, though the recordings are necessarily restricted to those made for Supraphon and Panton. He made around 300 recordings for the former, and the focus is on the three Czech orchestras closest to his development. Even though Supraphon did helpfully document his BBC period, there are no examples here of these foreign ventures.
The first disc is devoted to his March 1990 recording of Má Vlast, made in the Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle. This was his first recording of the work and one that was pretty much eclipsed by that made by Rafael Kubelík on his famous and triumphal return to Prague. The orchestral blend in the hall is not especially subtle and the strings sound rather metallic – an acoustical phenomenon presumably exacerbated by the unusual location. The 2014 Prague Spring traversal on Decca is altogether warmer in sound though the earlier reading has plenty of swagger and style.
Dvořák’s New World Symphony also reflects his first period with the Czech Philharmonic – there are no recordings from his second period as they are available elsewhere and well known – and offers a well-moulded reading not too dissimilar from subsequent ones on disc and DVD (see for example the Euroarts 2014 DVD cycle). There’s a lovely Serenade in E major with the newly minted strings of the Prague Philharmonia. Around the time that he recorded Suk in 1980 he was competing with most other leading Czech conductors in the repertoire. Válek split duties with him recording the composer with the Prague Symphony whilst Pešek and Neumann were expanding the discography with the Czech Philharmonic. There’s a splendid and witty Scherzo fantastique and a distinguished Fairy Tale made even more so by the presence of Josef Suk III who plays the long violin solo ravishingly. Bělohlávek’s view of this work remained very consistent – see the 1992 Chandos reading with the Czech Philharmonic where Bohumil Kotmel takes the solo with great refinement. Don’t overlook the Serenade in E flat major (Prague Philharmonia, 1996) on this all-Suk disc.
Disc 4 opens with Fibich’s Symphony No.3. This was part of a multi-conductorial LP assignment in Brno in 1981. Vronský took Symphony No.1 and Waldhans No.2. This was intended to supplant Šejna’s famous cycle (not possible interpretatively, but sound production values had moved on). Nevertheless, Bělohlávek shows real affinity for Fibich’s idiom, even if Waldhans in particular probes that bit deeper in his reading of No.2. Both Janáček recordings date from 1977. Košler recorded both the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba in the same year for Supraphon with the Czech Philharmonic, so there was quite a lot of competition for the purchaser, the national orchestra matched against the composer’s hometown band, where František Jílek was the reigning Brno champion of the composer’s music. The rustic Moravian winds and brass make a decisive contribution here.
I will single out disc five because it’s claimed in the booklet that it presents two recordings that have never appeared before at all, let alone on CD, namely Martinů’s Overture for Orchestra, a larky baroque fiesta, and the early Rhapsody for Large Orchestra of 1928, saturated with Dvořákian elements in its central panel. But they most certainly have appeared before, on SU 3743-2 031 so maybe something has been lost in translation when it comes to the notes: maybe what was meant was that these are premiere recordings of these pieces, which I believe is true. There’s a superb Parables – in which he followed in the recording footsteps of Turnovský and Neumann - and an equally fine Estampes, one of Martinů’s late masterpieces. Then we delve back into the vaults for the Ravel diptych, performances dating from 1973 and the very early days of his LP catalogue – with the Czech Philharmonic, perhaps surprisingly given the date, not the Brno Philharmonic. There’s more Martinů in disc six – Tre ricercari, a digital update of Turnovský and Neumann’s earlier stereo LPs. Bartók’s Divertimeto has been on CD before – it dates from 1973 – possibly because it’s with the Czech Philharmonic but the Concerto for Orchestra with the Prague Symphony (the Prahy FOK) has not. It’s quite a rare example of Bělohlávek conducting Bartók.
Standard symphonies occupy the penultimate disc: Mozart’s Prague Symphony – with the Prague Philharmonia in 2002 – and Mendelsohn’s Italian with the Czech Phil in 2006. They have been selected presumably to explore the Classical and Romantic repertoires that may have sometimes been overlooked when considering his legacy, which is very strongly tied to the music of his native soil. The final disc is a bit of a catch-all. Verklärte Nacht and Pavel Haas’ powerful Study for String Orchestra come from a disc played by the New Czech Chamber Orchestra in 1994. Then there are two excerpts from Mahler symphonies. Dagmar Peckova sings Urlicht from the Second – this excerpt was part of her Berio-and-Mahler Supraphon CD - and there’s the Adagietto from the Fifth; both these last with the Prague Philharmonia in 1995-96.
These eight CDs offer a fair and thoughtful summation of Bělohlávek’s studio legacy and demonstrate the high level of interpretative control and consistency he displayed throughout his career. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that in addition to the numerous downloads available, Supraphon and other labels will revisit their archives and present more examples of Bělohlávek’s art in CD format.
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má vlast (1872-79) [77:01]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, rec. 1990
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1901) Symphony No. 9, Op. 95 (B. 178) (1893) [41:44]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, rec. 1989
Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22 (B.52) (1875 rev 1878) [29:50]
Prague Philharmonia, rec. 1996
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Fantastic Scherzo for Orchestra Op. 25 (1902-03) [15:35]
A Fairy Tale, Op. 16 (1900) [30:38]
Josef Suk (violin)/Prague Symphony Orchestra, rec. 1980 (Fantastic Scherzo) and 1978-79 (Fairy Tale)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 6 (1892) [29:22]
Prague Philharmonia, rec. 1996
Zdeněk FIBICH (1850-1900)
Symphony No. 3, Op. 53 [36:55]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta (1926) [22:40]
Taras Bulba (1915-18) [22:19]
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, rec. 1981 (Fibich), 1977 (Sinfonietta, Taras Bulba)
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Overture for Orchestra H. 345 (1953) [6:29]
Rhapsody for Large Orchestra (Allegro symphonique) H. 171 (1928) [11:45]
The Parables for Large Orchestra, H. 367 (1958) [21:17]
Estampes for Orchestra, H. 369 (1958) [18:05]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma Mčre l'Oye (1911) [18:03]
Pavane pour une infant défunte (1899) [6:55]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, rec.1987 (Overture, Rhapsody, Parables, Estampes), 1973 (Ravel)
Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Tre ricercari, H. 267 (1938) [15:07]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Divertimento for Strings Orchestra, Sz113 (1939) [26:25]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, rec. 1989 (Ricercari), 1973 (Divertimento), Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz.116 (1943) [39:25]
Prague Symphony Orchestra, rec.1981 (Concerto)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony No. 38, K. 504 (1786) [32:38]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Symphony No. 4, Op. 90 (1833) [28:56]
Prague Philharmonia, rec. 2002 (Mozart) and 2006 (Mendelssohn)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 [28:14]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
Study for String Orchestra (1943) [8:11]
New Czech Chamber Orchestra, rec. 1994
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5: I. Adagietto. Sehr langsam [9:41]
Symphony No. 2 Resurrection: I. Urlicht. Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht [5:18]
Dagmar Peckova (mezzo soprano)/Prague Philharmonia, rec. 1995 (Symphony 5) and 1996 (Symphony 2)