Great Czech Conductors: Rafael Kubelik = DVORAK: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88; Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op. 33; SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70; MARTINU: Symphony No. 4; Memorial to Lidice for Symphony Orchestra; DOBIAS: Stalingrad: Cantata for Baritone, Chorus and Orchestra – Rudolf Firkusny, piano/ Zdenek Otava, baritone/ Army Recitation Corps/ Typografia Male Chorus/ Czech Philharmonic Orchestra – Supraphon SU 4080, (2 CDs), 74:56; 79:20 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
A brief portrait of the nationally sensitive style of Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) graces these discs inscribed during and immediately after WW II (1944-1948), beginning with his Dvorak Eighth Symphony (30 November 1944) and ending with his performance of the Martinu Symphony No. 4 (10 June 1948). The son of eminent violinist Jan Kubelik, Rafael grew up in a rarified atmosphere “marked by Czech, Slavic, German, Italian and also French culture. . .such a natural harmony that I could hardly have imagined anything else,” stated Kubelik in an interview. Kubelik became a spiritual descendant of Vaclav Talich’s Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and its commitment to Czech nationalism, even in spite of the Nazi occupation that was to repress so much of the world’s cultural heritage.
The Dvorak 1889 G Major Symphony, Kubelik’s first (live) recorded traversal of the work, betrays none of the spiritual and political angst of its environment. Essentially sunny in character, the performance basks in the expressive and meditative spirit of its second movement Adagio, with its own homage to the Beethoven Fifth “fate” motif. The contemporary engineering of the period proves quite strong, capturing in glowing sound the first violin’s contribution to the lyrico-dramatic progression of this essentially bucolic and heraldic music. The dream-waltz character of the Allegretto grazioso communicates its “Paradise Lost” with the blissful repose in which Dvorak combines the Brahms syncopated sound world with Mendelssohn’s light feet, tempered by the Slavic melos. The martial coda at its end carries over to the trumpet work opening the Finale: Allegro ma non troppo, in which the ever-active tympani adds it own tattoo. Splendid work from brass, flute, and strings of the CPO, intoning their various leading militant voices within a blazing moment of ensemble. The air of gentle mystery that precedes the final rush to the Slavonic-Dance coda warrants repeated listening.
Kubelik and piano virtuoso combine (4 June 1946) for the severely edited version (by Professor Kurz) of the Dvorak Piano Concerto, given as part of the newly established Prague Spring Festival of 1946. Publicist O.F. Korte recalls that “[Kubelik’s] very appearance seemed to embody the slightly archaic stereotype of the romantic artist. . .And at the dramatic orchestral climaxes, he took on a form befitting his biblical name, that of a fiery archangel from the big canvases or ceiling allegories as painted by the Baroque masters.” Even with its elisions, the Concerto sparkles with melodic and rhythmical magic, here in a visceral performance that literally revitalized the piece. Over the succeeding decades, Firkusny would play increasingly restored versions of the Concerto’s original design.
The Shostakovich Ninth Symphony (13 December 1945) had been given its world premier by Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad only a month prior to the Kubelik’s Czech performance; and already the Soviet authorities founds its “pellucid and bright mood” and neo-classical wit antithetical to their partisan aesthetics, which would have demanded a huge political work in the manner of the Beethoven Ninth, filled with overpowering elation and the fruits of victory. Kubelik’s brio captures the rather “circus” effect of the opening Allegro, the piccolo, two flutes, strings, brass, and battery conspiring to dress the ironies in full regalia. The second movement Moderato does instill a more somber sense of the occasion, perhaps the post-war ironies of a conflagration’s having past only to invoke new crises. The bravura aspect of the music and its realization resumes at the rather savage Presto, which features marvelous trumpet work. The lugubrious but brief Largo resonates with Mussorgsky harmonies conveyed via a bassoon solo; it soon segues into the rambunctious Allegretto that gathers increasing energy as it proceeds to its virtuosic coda.
Bohuslav Martinu’s Fourth Symphony (10 June 1948) had been only three years old at the time of Kubelik’s performance. The symphony’s opening movement, Poco moderato, basks in luscious harmonies that indicate a Stravinsky (Petrushka) influence, with a pronounced tendency to voluptuous incandescence. Kubelik’s CPO strings radiate that intoxicant richness Talich too could elicit for his own purposes. While the ensuing Scherzo: Allegro vivo might suggest balletic impulses, Kubelik emphasizes its growling urgent ferocity, certainly its militantly bravura demands on his ensemble. The trio section, however, emanates a forced but cheerfully modal innocence, metrically intricate. The heart of the work, the Largo, unfolds a tragic sensibility; recall that Martinu’s own consciousness of Lidice still reverberates in recent European history. In its more restful episodes, something of the solace of Wagner’s Parsifal harmonies, by way of Debussy, resounds. Poco allegro, the last movement generates a dervish excitement, unrestrained energy and the élan vital of the will to life. Through his exhilarating energy, Kubelik has set the high mark for renditions of this, perhaps the most sonorously lush, of all Martinu symphonies.
Kubelik performed Martinu’s Memorial to Lidice (14 March 1946) on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the German occupation. The piece had had its world premier in New York under Artur Rodzinski, the work’s having been commissioned by the American League of Composers for musical war memorials. The German retaliation for the death of Reinhard “the Hangman” Heydrich occurred on a June night in 1942, another of those “days of infamy” WW II and fascism bequeathed the human race. Kubelik’s CPO strings and tympani strain to express the universality of the horror, while the winds and then violins intone consolation.
Vaclav Dobias (1909-1978) had studied with Vitezslav Novak at the Prague Conservatory. Kubelik performs his Stalingrad Cantata (7 November 1945) on the anniversary of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. The convulsive work celebrates the same siege that Shostakovich immortalizes in his Seventh Symphony. Even after having made concessions to the Soviets’ desire to politicize music, Kubelik would suffer forty years of exile from his native country. It would not be until after the fall of the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia that Kubelik would return for the Prague Spring Festival (12 May 1990), leading the most nationalistic of all scores, Smetana’s Ma Vlast.
“Perhaps the most fluently consummate performer on the keyboard of all time…”