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Rafael Kubelík (conductor)
Complete Decca Recordings
rec. 1954-79
No texts included
ELOQUENCE 484 1452 [12 CDs: 789:10]

Kubelik’s entire Decca legacy stretches across a quarter of a century from the 1954 Vienna sessions to the Bavarian Radio recording of Der Freischütz. As ever it was programmed with care, as he and the label’s A & R team paid due attention to the ‘Viennese’ Brahms, whilst also honouring the country of Kubelík’s birth via Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and indeed Mahler, and adding Tchaikovsky. Over twenty years later they returned to record Weber and Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor.
There’s an inevitably dated, indeed solemn look to some of the LP artwork on these Deccas, certainly the effigy of Brahms that sits on both the opening original jacket sleeves that house the CDs. Kubelík was a first class Brahmsian and though his cycle was not as well recorded as those later ones in Vienna made by Kertész and Barbirolli, it has authority and integrity to back it up. He had first recorded Brahms’ C minor Symphony in Chicago for Mercury five years before his stereo remake in Vienna and not surprisingly the two recordings are very similar in conception. The Vienna finale is really exceptional, the whole performance defined by a sense of consolatory nobility. The Second Symphony’s lyricism is perfectly suited to Kubelík’s generosity of phrasing and cultivation of tonal warmth whilst he calibrates the structural and expressive ambiguities of the Third with great perception. It’s remarkable to realise that during the period of his recording the cycle with the VPO he only programmed the Fourth in concert and it too marries architectural assurance with moments of localised expressive warmth, not least in a most impressive slow movement. In the main Kubelík’s cycle is neither gaunt nor rhetorical. It avoids extremes and sometimes understates, but for a purpose. If you are curious, Eloquence has already released this cycle on 482 4969 (review).

Kubelík returned to the Brahms cycle with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 1983, the results appearing on Orfeo, by which time he took a markedly more measured approach , as well as taking first movement repeats in the First and Second Symphonies, which he had not done in his Vienna cycle.

CD3 is an all-Dvořák disc with Pierre Fournier’s mono 1954 Vienna traversal of the Concerto. The two men performed it with the Czech Philharmonic to open the 1947 Prague Spring and soon went on to record it the following year with the Philharmonia. Fournier was later to go on to make his celebrated stereo recording with Szell, whose earlier recording with Casals was for years a standard bearer. Most auditors swear by the Szell but the cellist himself especially liked this Vienna recording and I do too. The winds sound beautiful, and Fournier’s clarity and eloquence alike are marked, the rapport of both men of long standing and perfectly audible. Also here is the Serenade for Strings with the Israel Philharmonic recorded in a cinema along with the Eighth Symphony – which was not released.

On the next disc however are Dvořák’s Seventh and Ninth symphonies, recorded in stereo in 1956. No.7 is very similar in conception to the 1951 mono Philharmonia though the undoubted sonic improvement over that earlier 78rpm set is obvious. I would take Kubelík’s rather more athletic 1951 Mercury recording of the New World over this Vienna version, even given the fact that the latter is in stereo, largely because you can barely hear the cor anglais in the slow movement. What were the Decca engineers doing? His later Berlin recording, like that of the Seventh, is rather slower.

One of the most joyful sets of both books of the Slavonic Dances was his Bavarian Radio recording and I’m sure many an old timer will recall with affection the DG Privilege gatefold twofer with its reproduction of that riotously colourful Wierucz-Kowalski painting. The Vienna 1955 sets are alluring and rather more impetuous all round than the more lovingly phrased Bavarian remakes. You’d be a fortunate listener to have both but if you had to have one, as so often in Kubelík’s discography, it would be the Bavarian recordings. It was in those years that he reached his interpretative peak.

He was long associated with Má vlast but then, before him, so had been Talich. Kubelík’s first complete set of the cycle had been for Mercury in Chicago in December 1952. The stereo 1958 Vienna remake is, with the exceptions of Šarka – fabulously visceral – and Blaník, consistently swifter. It’s tempting to assume that this was to do with the Vienna Philharmonic’s greater familiarity with the work but I suspect it was rather to do with a process of examination and reflection because when it come to the Boston Symphony cycle of March 1971 Kubelík’s conception of Tábor had speeded up over both earlier cycles – an unusual experience, as he, like many conductors, generally slowed down the older he got.

The mono 1954 Vienna Mahler First can be fruitfully contrasted with the 1967 Bavarian Radio remake. In the intervening years there had been rather a radical rethink about the music’s proportions with the later reading expanding in the opening movement but tightening in the finale. The central two movements are very similar in conception. The problem with the Munich recording is that it still sounds rather tart, something that clearly doesn’t apply to the Vienna Decca.

The eighth disc couples Janáček and Tchaikovsky. Charles Mackerras was a long way from being the first to teach the Vienna Philharmonic about Janáček, as Kubelík recorded the Sinfonietta there in 1955. This was a work he had recorded with the Czech Philharmonic in 1946 for HMV in that brief interregnum between War’s end and the emergence of the Communist overlords. The Czech familiarity with the idiom is clear; it’s a grander, slower, and yet more rhythmically alert reading. One feels a tentative, unsure quality in Vienna and whilst there must have been a number of players of Czech descent in the orchestra in 1955, the results are blunted by unfamiliarity with the idiom. Kubelík plays it safe, one feels, though it’s only fair to add that it was a commercial and critical success. Kubelík never recorded any Tchaikovsky commercially with his Bavarian forces but he recorded two symphonies in Chicago and turned to Romeo and Juliet in Vienna. There are a few thuds on the master tape before 5:30 and Romeo conforms to the general tenor of his Tchaikovsky: highly efficient but not really full of rapturous expressive sweep.

The box ends with recordings made many years later in Munich with the forces of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus. The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1977 was followed two years later by Der Freischütz. Both have strong casts and two singers are common to both sets; Wolfgang Brendel and Helen Donath. In Der Freischütz only the most partisan supporter of the Czech conductor would claim that his reading has the lithe incision and command that Carlos Kleiber achieved in his classic recording, or the more measured consistency of Jochum, but softer-edged and more becalmed though he is, Kubelík has the benefit of Donath and René Kollo. For the Merry Wives he has Karl Ridderbusch in fine voice and very elegant to boot, as well as Brendel and Donath and a decent supporting cast, though this set tends to sit in the shade of the 1963 set with Gottlob Frick and Fritz Wunderlich, both unsurpassed, heading the cast and the old maestro Robert Heger directing with great wit. As a pendant you will also find Josephine Veasey singing Ah ! Ah ! Je vais mourir ! … Adieu, fičre cité from Les Troyens, a 1968 Kingsway Hall recording. A final point: texts are not included in the booklet.

This is a very handsome box with fine notes from Peter Quantrill and a raft of photographic reproductions. It offers hours of high-class music making.

Jonathan Woolf
CDs 1
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording Location: Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 23–24 September 1957 (Symphony No. 1), 4–8 March 1957 (Symphony No. 2)

Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording Location: Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 28–29 September 1957 (Symphony No. 3), 24–25 March 1956 (Symphony No. 4)

CD 3
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
Pierre Fournier, cello; Wiener Philharmoniker
Serenade for Strings in E major Op. 22
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording Locations: Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, 26 June 1954 (Cello Concerto); Tifferet Cinema, Rishon-le-Zion, Israel, April 1957 (Serenade)

CD 4
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording Location: Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 1–4 October 1956
CD 5
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Slavonic Dances, Opp. 46 & 72
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording Location: Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, 7 & 10–11 March 1955

CD 6
Má vlast
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording Location: Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 3–7 April 1958

CD 7
GUSTAV MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording Location: Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, 27 June 1954

CD 8
LEOŠ JANÁČEK (1854–1928)
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy-Overture after Shakespeare
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording Location: Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, 8–9 March 1955 (Janáček), 2–3 March 1955 (Tchaikovsky)

CDs 9–10
OTTO NICOLAI (1810–1849)
Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
Sir John Falstaff - Karl Ridderbusch
Fluth / Ford - Wolfgang Brendel
Herr Reich / Page - Alexander Malta
Frau Fluth / Mistress Ford - Helen Donath
Frau Reich / Mistress Page - Trudeliese Schmidt
Fenton - Claes Haakon Ahnsjö
Junker Spärlich / Slender - Heinz Zednik
Dr. Cajus - Alfred Sramek
Jungfer Anna Reich / Anna Page - Lilian Sukis
Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus
Recording Location: Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany, 8–28 March 1977

CDs 11–12
Der Freischütz, Op. 77, J. 277
Ottokar - Wolfgang Brendel
Kuno - Raimund Grumbach
Agathe - Hildegard Behrens
Ännchen - Helen Donath
Kaspar - Peter Meven
Max -René Kollo
Ein Eremit - Kurt Moll
Samiel -Rolf Boysen
Kilian - Hermann Sapell
Jäger - Theodor Nicolai
Bridesmaids - Irmgart Lampart, Adelheid Schiller, Erika Ruggeberg, Renate Freyer
Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus
HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803–1869)
Ah ! Ah ! Je vais mourir ! … Adieu, fičre cité (Les Troyens)
Josephine Veasey (mezzo-soprano): Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,
Recording Location: Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany, 5–17 November 1979; Kingsway Hall, London, UK, February 1968 (Berlioz)

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