Karel Ancerl Conducts Ma Vlast (1966-68)

by | Aug 18, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Karel Ancerl Conducts Ma Vlast (1966-68)

Program: SMETANA: My Country; BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 – Henryk Szeryng, violin/Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ancerl
Studio: Supraphon DVD [Distr. by Qualiton]

Video: 4:3 Black&White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 156:16
Rating: *****:

“Who is Karel Ancerl?”  This rhetorical question is posed by documentary film director Ladislav Danes, who answers this intriguing inquiry with locale footage and direct interviews with its subject, Czech conductor Karel Ancerl (1908-1973).  As the film evolves, Ancerl works on a performance of the Beethoven D Major Symphony, Op. 36. Born in Tucapy in South Bohemia, near Tabor, Ancerl attended grammar school in Prague; he disliked academics but gravitated to the violin and composition. By 1930 he was already leading ensembles as a conductor, and in 1933 he attended Vaclav Talich’s conducting class, which Ancerl describes as “mostly discussion” on interpretation and communicating the composers’ intentions. Late in the video, he recalls Talich actually crying in his dressing room after a rehearsal, astonished at the level of performance by the CPO, who can “anticipate and play what I want even before I ask.”

Ancerl’s rising, promising career suffers the Nazi occupation; more costly, he and his family are sent to Terezin and then to Auschwitz, where Ancerl loses his family. Later, even after his official posting with the Czech Philharmonic in 1950–through the auspices of violinist David Oistrakh–Ancerl will encounter anti-Semitic sentiments from the orchestra members. Between 1954-959, Ancerl makes spectacular tours with the CPO, the advertisements listing “the Majestic” Czech Philharmonic in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, China, and the Soviet Union. In 1968, Ancerl accepted the post of Chief Conductor of the Toronto Symphony, this after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. In 1969, Ancerl conducted his last Czech concerts, two, with the CPO as part of the Prague Spring Festival.  In 1970 Ancerl led orchestras in New York, Boston, and Cleveland.  In the video, he fondly recalls his happiest years spent 1933-1936 with the Liberated Theater Group in Prague, working on opera and musical theater. 

The video proper contains two performances from the 1966 (Beethoven, 28 May) and 1968 (Smetana, 12 May) Prague Spring Festival.  The video quality is poor, bleached and occasionally betraying vertical lines and some deterioration; but the aural quality is fine and the interpretations masterful.  I rank the collaboration with Polish virtuoso Henryk Szeryng (1918-1988) in the Beethoven Concerto as among the great, Apollinian realizations we have on record.  From the opening two harps in Vysehrad, the High Castle, we have a Ma Vlast of stately power and articulated energy.  The familiar Moldau moves briskly from rills to full-coursing river, the French horns invoking the hunt and the Village Dance retaining what Ancerl requests in the Beethoven rehearsal: chamber-music ensemble. When the catarcts erupt at the close of The Moldau, we sweep by the High Castle in vigorous spectacle, unsentimental virtuosity in every orchestral choir. Sarka the Amazon strikes out with fierce aggression, the doomed knights trotting to their demise. The febrile dance has Ancerl leading the contrapuntal voices with his left hand, the baton never ceasing in its fluid movements. String and woodwind gorgeosity for Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests, the flutes and oboes capturing a pantheistic Garden of Eden. The latter pages turn into a Slavonic dance both convulsive and robust. Tabor invokes the Hussite war machine in a series of heroic perorations that permit no sag in tension and then segue directly into Blanik. This expansive piece becomes an oboe and French horn serenade that picks up a buzzing, string figure Stravinsky copies in his Pulcinella. The audience revels twice: at the end of Sarka and at the conclusion of Blanik.  That Ancerl repeated this feat at Tanglewood in 1970 still has testimony in those lucky enough either to hear the Boston Symphony on that stormy summer day or the surviving tape document.

The Beethoven epitomizes the art of both violinist and conductor, especially as Szeryng loves to interpolate his own roulades and cadenzas (the first a variant of the Joachim) into the Concerto.  For arched beauty of tone, elastic phrasing, and wonderfully graceful communion between solo violin, bassoon, and tutti, there can hardly be more rounded examples. Every line has a polish and serenity of long experience, and this claim I make fully cognizant of how much I favor Milstein, Oistrakh, Menuhin, Bustabo, Schneiderhan, Morini et al. in this work.  If the bleached visuals offend thine eyes, close them and bask in the timeless perfection of the sounds.  A fine tribute to a great musician and a brave man, this presentation.

–Gary Lemco


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