DVORAK: Slavonic Dances & Documentary: Vaclav Talich – Confidence and Humility

by | Mar 21, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

DVORAK: Slavonic Dances & Documentary: Vaclav Talich – Confidence and Humility

Performers: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vaclav Talich, conductor
Studio: Supraphon DVD SU 7010-9 (Distrib. Qualiton)
Video: 4:3  Black & White/Color
Audio: PCM Mono, Dolby Stereo
Duration: 116 min., 16 min.
Rating: ****

I had the distinct pleasure of discussing conductor Vaclav Talich (1883-1961) with his great student-acolyte Sir Charles Mackerras after the latter’s concert with the Atlanta Symphony some years ago. Talich had suffered political and professional humiliation from the Communist Czech authorities after World War II – supposedly because he had once shared a theater box with Hans Frank, the Nazi administrator during the occupation.  Such calumny and restriction upon Talich, who had championed Czech music and national spirit all his creative life, amounted to the gravest injustice; but he remained firmly dedicated to Czechoslovakia, making music when he could in Bratislava and taping the complete set of Slavonic Dances for Czech television in 1955.  “We urged Talich to leave and to emigrate where he and his talent would be appreciated,” commented Mackerras, meaning “we‚ him and his wife,” but he stayed, and then health issues became a factor, and it was too late.”

The black and white video of the Slavonic Dances has Talich at the podium in a studio, the camera work coordinated with the score quite deftly, a la Karajan. Talich looks a combination of aged professor and avuncular grand maitre.  The gorgeous playing and articulate interior lines of Dvorak’s hearty scores are what we have come to relish in Talich realizations of this familiar music. After a rousing C Major dance, the E Minor is taken rather briskly, as is the following polka. The camera pans across the entire cadre of strings, then to the substantial woodwind section. Talich’s baton work is economical, even sporting the tiny beat Fritz Reiner cultivated with a vengeance. A tightening of his arms, a hunched shoulder and a clenched fist, are all Talich needs to usher more intensity from his players. When the presto in the third dance takes off, so do the years fall away from Talich’s mien. The eyebrows, along with the baton, do the conducting of the F Major’s fourth dance. Deep focus shot from behind Talich through the ranks to the tympani. Silken cello line, then the cello solo in the trio segues to the trumpets. Nice shot of the piccolo in the A Major; the whirling colors have Talich’s delighting in the mix, of which the camera has taken an interest in the bass fiddles. Though the D Major is marked Allegretto scherzando, it assumes an heroic, rustic cast under Talich, the camera taking us from Talich to the cymbals and the piccolo. Oboe and bassoon lead us into the C Minor, then piccolo and tutti carry us along rustic, spirited paths. The furiant G Minor has Talich assume his most characteristic pose: the left hand extended outward, palm down, the baton arm foreshortened, and the carriage totally rapt in the sound he elicits.

The second set of Slavonic Dances, again directed by Vaclav Kaslik, wastes no time panning the piccolo and horn complement for the B Major, Talich’s baton almost motionless as he molds the middle subject; then the camera is engaged with the doublebasses. The elegant E Minor opens from behind the podium, the melody and pizzicati an extension of Talich’s outstretched arms. The celli take up the theme, arco, then cut to the violins, back and forth until the second subject with its tinge of color from the triangle. The irreverent F Major shares something of Fibich and circus music. The most gorgeous of both sets, the D-flat Major, is a paean to nature which rises into a magnificent hymn. Talich’s eyes and the extended small finger of his left hand, the passion in his shoulders and elbows, make it happen. Verve and majesty open the B-flat Minor dance, then it bursts into circus pomp before the noble, bucolic da capo and its bustling coda. A second dance in B-flat Minor, only this time an exalted polka-minuet.  The Serbian kolo in C Major blazes forth, the orchestra seeming to lead itself whilst Talich just watches the figures dance in the air. The clarinets take up the middle section; the strings follow even the minute flicks of the baton. The A-flat Major, the longest of the set and the most valedictory, has us begging the music not to end, so that the wisdom and grace of this fine conductor might stay a while. The cuckoo haunts the elegiac strings. The middle section has the intimacy of a concertino in the middle of a Slavic concerto grosso.

I watched Martin Suchanek’s 2004 documentary on Talich twice. “When I saw the singing hands of Nikisch, I knew the whole musical direction of my life had been a mistake,” quotes Talich in his journal.  A member of the string section of the Berlin Philharmonic and a quartet player, Talich “knew the music from the inside,” as Charles Mackerras puts it. Impoverished as a violin student, Talich had come to the attention of Dvorak himself, what Talich calls a “meeting with the god.” Ever frugal himself, Dvorak advised Talich, “Don’t smoke cigars; cheroots are cheaper.”  Dvorak arranged a scholarship for this great acolyte of Bohemian music, who eventually rose to the opera pit, though none of Talich’s work in opera remains on record. We see a Puccini Tosca program he led. The whole enterprise is a nostalgic tribute to a vanished era, and Talich emerges as a hero, his tragedy that of a genius underemployed. It opens with the Mourning Music from Suk’s Fantasy, played by the Czech Philharmonic as part of its farewell homage.  Family portraits are in tinted black and white; we discover that a brother Antonin, a gifted cellist, died at age 12.  Frantisek Ondricek was Talich’s youthful idol, stated to the strains of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto.

Later, it was Arthur Nikisch who promoted Talich’s career, having allowed Talich to witness and to work at rehearsals. Having served as a violin teacher and opera rehearsal director, Talich had paid his dues. He married a pianist, Vida Perelesnikova, whom he had met in Prague and again in Ljubjana. Talich was 27.  In 1919, he had no permanent job, and he taught and read Latin and Greek classics, and studied scores. Finally, in 1917, Talich substitutes for an ailing Karel Kovarovic, and the reviewers claim “he is our future man.” The Czech Philharmonic at the time had no tradition, and the quality of the players was poor. Smetana’s From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests announces the change: by June 1918, Talich felt the orchestra was ready to appear at the Prague National Theater. Talich then received the premier of Suk’s The Ripening, beating out his artistic rivals for the privilege of leading the most modern and demanding score in the Czech repertory. Eleven rehearsals later, Talich was doing the dress rehearsal, October 28, when news arrived of the fall of the monarchy. Czechoslovakia was free. “That’s nice,” observed Talich, “but we have to rehearse.”

The Ripening became the first notes to sound in the new, free republic, and it proved the initiation motif for the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Professor Kahout recalls that Talich called a long-held E-flat on the G string in the cellos’ fourth position in Ripening “the heartbeat of an unborn child.”  “Who but a poet would think such a thing,” queries Kahout. Cut to photo of Suk with entourage, the Serenade in E accompanying. In September 1919 Talich received the appointment to Chief Conductor, based on the players’ belief in a man with a goal and the vision to achieve it. “If he combed his hair against the grain, that meant trouble,” reminisces Kahout. Mackerras recalls how Talich would mix philosophy and practicality as they analyzed the Mozart G Minor Symphony together. A pity we don’t have it on disc.  We glimpse Talich’s daughter Vita, and she illustrates Talich’s volatile temper, breaking plates if the soup was too hot or too cold. “I am giving my all; you give your all, too!” Kahout remembers.

In 1921, Talich met Toscanini, who shared with Talich his thoughts on music performance.  Talich took the Czech Philharmonic on a successful Italian tour, using Czech pieces. Mackerras points out that Talich looked at the whole, then he gleaned the particulars, colors and individual lines. Talich called the Scottish Symphony and London Philharmonic, each of which he conducted, “sleepy–and they need to be set on fire.” The London critics found him interesting, a romantic figure who charms the ladies.  The Moldau on a turntable has us contemplating Talich’s recording legacy.  “He was loud and angry, but he could also forgive; and deep down, he deeply loved his musicians.” In 1935, at the National Opera, Talich premiered Dvorak’s Rusalka. A tattered passport testifies to years of relentless travel and tours. Talich’s work in Stockholm (254 concerts) with their Swedish orchestra made him wish for similar conditions for his Czechs. In 1935, nervous exhaustion took its toll. Family portraits, then the little villa at Beroun, where Talich took long anonymous walks. Shots of the rucksacked Talich against the color shots of Beroun today.

The 1939 Nazi occupation put Talich in a hard place. Smetana’s Sarka describes it. Goebbels attended Talich’s production of The Bartered Bride and invited Talich to visit his box. Talich chose Ma Vlast for the official tour, even though the score had been banned. “I wanted to show the Germans what sort of a nation we were.”  Although relieved of his post in 1941, Talich wished to go to Prague in 1945 for Smetana’s Libuse.  At 62, Talich was willing to walk to Prague, if need be. He walked to Prague in twelve hours, but he was not permitted inside the National Theater; on May 21 he was accused of collaboration and imprisoned. Though exonerated, he could not return to the National Theater. Vita remarks, “Nothing to do was a terrible punishment.” Vita died in 1976, and she is interred with her father.

The young Mackerras took advantage of Talich’s exile situation to visit Talich at his villa. Talich founded the Czech Chamber Orchestra in 1946, refusing all international offers. He honed the crystalline clarity of the Chamber Orchestra, “a quasi-religious experience,” as Mackerras puts it. Cut to kinescope of Talich in the Dvorak Cello Concerto.  Ilness. Then the Communist authorities (1948) prohibit Talich from orchestra and theater. Bratislava’s Slovak Philharmonic gave him some prospects, along with the student orchestra. Kinescope of Tchaikovsky Pathetique rehearsal. Jan Talich, the conductor’s nephew, reminisces that he (aged nine) and his uncle played the Dvorak Sonatina, Vaclav playing from memory.  Talich was awarded the title National Artist in 1957. The last sequences juxtapose Talich against scenes from his villa, accompanied by strains from The New World Symphony. The restless mind, ever young, even as he lets the curtain fall on a remarkably vain and humble life, the true paradox of the conductor.

— Gary Lemco

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