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Rafael Kubelík (conductor)
The Mercury Masters
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. 1951-53, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
ELOQUENCE 4843028 [10 CDs: 459:10]

In the interests of full disclosure, I wrote part of the booklet notes for this release.

Rafael Kubelík’s appointment to the position of conductor of the Chicago Symphony coincided neatly with the arrival of the Mercury recording team who duly solved the seemingly problematic Orchestra Hall acoustic, one that had defeated RCA Victor and Columbia. A single microphone situated roughly 15 feet above, and slightly behind, Kubelík’s head as he stood on the rostrum was one of the essential elements that enabled this epochal series of recordings to sound so good, and to inaugurate Hi-fi.

Reissues have served to remind collectors of the excellent results that the conductor achieved in Chicago but this comprehensive box, an original jacket affair with, therefore, LP running times per disc, allows listeners to hear the full discography. Kubelík was hardly a novice in the recording studios, given his experience with the Czech Philharmonic before and just after the war and sessions in London with the Philharmonia concurrent with those in Chicago, so it’s to be expected that levels of efficiency should be high. Canny concert programming before the sessions ensured that the works’ problems had been ironed out by the time Mercury came to record.

The famous Pictures at an Exhibition, the LP that inspired the adulatory ‘hi-fi’ comment, is the one that inaugurated everything, and with trumpeter Adolph Herseth leading into the fray, still sounds superb. Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was coupled with Bloch’s Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra with Piano Obbligato – though there were also altered couplings and the Bartók was teamed with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra – and points to Kubelík’s command of contemporary repertoire. The Bartók is detailed and sweeping and noted critic R.H. Hagan wrote that it summoned up an ‘absolutely phenomenal recreation of live orchestral sound’, a comment that he extended to the Bloch, a performance even better than the Bartók. It’s a colour-saturated and subtle reading with beautifully expressive moments.

The Chicago New World tends to be overlooked in favour of his later recordings in Vienna in 1956 – not good, the Decca engineers unaccountably barely bothered to record the cor anglais solo in the slow movement – and with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1972. The Berlin reading is the most languorous and long-breathed, but this Chicago recording has a bracing intensity and no-nonsense – but not unsympathetic – quality that will recommend itself to those who prefer the younger, more athletic Kubelík. The next two discs offer Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Sixth symphonies. His Tchaikovsky tended toward the clarity-conscious rather than the combustible. Therefore, heaven-storming emotionalism is not the order of the day, but these are cohesive symphonic statements and attest to the strong orchestral discipline that the conductor maintained throughout his all-too-brief stay in Chicago.

I’ve always admired Kubelík’s Brahms for its quality of expressive nobility. The First Symphony dates from a two-day session in April 1952 and is a match for his later performances, interpretatively. Though he’d recorded a couple of movements from Mà vlast on 78s his first full recording of the work came in Chicago in January 1953. The later stereo 1958 Vienna remake is, with the exceptions of Šarka and Blaník, consistently swifter but in 1971 he turned to the work again in Boston and there were conceptual adjustments. His famous ‘welcome home’ performances with the Czech Philharmonic are seemingly as loved for political circumstances as for musical excellence.

Mozart is housed in disc eight. The Prague was a favourite of his and it’s coupled with Symphony No.34, and both offer eloquent, eccentricity-free readings in the central European tradition. He did programme the Jupiter in Chicago but never recorded it. The final disc of his studio legacy was the last to be recorded, in April 1953. It couples Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber with the Schoenberg Pieces. In an alternative Mercury LP coupling the Hindemith was housed with the Bloch. In any case the Hindemith was a favoured piece at the time, and he had rehearsed it pretty much to perfection by the time of the sessions where he and the orchestra gave an admirable and splendidly crafted reading that stands the test of time. The Schoenberg was equally well played. Even Gramophone, in Britain, not always easily impressed and occasionally carping at some of Mercury’s recordings, admitted admiration for this coupling.

The final disc offers a remarkable sequence of reminiscences and recordings. There’s an interview with Mercury’s Wilma Cozart Fine made in 1986 where, interestingly enough, she speaks of the microphone being 25 feet above the conductor, not 15. Perhaps she misremembered. She recalls it was a ‘special privilege and pleasure’ to work with Kubelík who was ‘charismatic and imposing’. She also goes into some detail regarding the remastering process and her reminiscences are well worth hearing, of course. There’s the first reel of the tape of the Bloch, all first takes and complete but for the Dirge, of which we hear from figure 13 to the end ie around half the movement. But the jewels in the musical crown in this disc are Tábor from Mà vlast and part of the Prague symphony, half the first movement, some 22 seconds from the Andante and the whole of the finale. These are heard in startlingly good stereo and show just how advanced Mercury really was, not merely with its slew of mono recordings but with these experimental stereos. If you’d told me they came from 1965 and not 1952-53 I’d have believed you.

Thomas Fine has also contributed a fascinating ‘Chicago Symphony Sessionography’ which goes into extensive detail regarding Mercury’s recording techniques and is a must-read for this body of recordings. With excellent photographic reproductions - there are even photographs of the inside of Mercury’s travelling recording truck, the ‘Cinecruiser’ – this is a box to savour.

Jonathan Woolf

CD 1
Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Pictures at an Exhibition
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 23–24 April 1951

CD 2
BÉLA BARTÓK (1881–1945)
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106
Irwin Fischer, celesta
Edward Metzenger, timpani
Allen Graham, Lionel Sayers, Thomas Glenecke, percussion
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 23–24 April 1951
ERNEST BLOCH (1880–1959)
Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra with Piano Obbligato*
George Schick, piano
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, November 19–20, 1951

CD 3
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, November 19–20, 1951

CD 4
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 21–22 April 1952

CD 5
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathetique’
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 21–22 April 1952

CD 6
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 21–22 April 1952

CD 7
Mà vlast
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 4–6 December 1952

CD 8
Symphony No. 38 in D major, KV 504 ‘Prague’
Symphony No. 34 in C major, KV 338*
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 4–6 December 1952 (Symphony No. 34); USA, 3–5 April 1953 (Symphony No. 38)

CD 9
PAUL HINDEMITH (1895–1963)
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Fünf Orchesterstücke, Op. 16
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 3–5 April 1953

CD 10
Interview with Wilma Cozart Fine (Interviewer: Sedgwick Clark)
ERNEST BLOCH (1880–1959)
Concerto Grosso – First reel of tape, 23 April 1951*
Tábor (Mà vlast) – stereo*
Symphony No. 38 in D major, KV 504 ‘Prague’ – excerpts (stereo)*
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, USA, 23 April 1951 (Bloch); 6 December 1952 (Smetana); 3 April 1953 (Mozart), The Mix Place, New York, USA, 1996 (interview)

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