Rafael Kubelik Conducts = DVORAK: Symphonic Variations, Op. 78; MARTINU: Incantation; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 – Rudolf Firkusny, piano/Philharmonia Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik
Testament SBT 1421, 71:47 [Distrib. Harmonia mundi] ****:
Recorded live at the 11th Edinburgh Festival 30 August 1957, we have a concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra with guest conductor Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996), who had emigrated from Communist Czechoslovakia to settle in the West. His credentials long established in music of his native land, the Symphonic Variations of Dvorak were standard repertory, allowing Kubelik to bask in the interplay of winds and horns, as well as the luxuriant sound of the Philharmonia string section. The variants proceed energetically without sag, the plastic theme allowing the several characters of the orchestra to emerge in dramatic coloration. The fugue section–a combination of Bach and Smetana–proceeds as a quick march, the Philharmonia basses in striking form, the top line dancing. The momentum explodes forward, horns blazing, then to final variant, a Slavonic Dance, a furiant of whiplash energy that easily must have impressed Janacek for the modally active, musical tissue. The crowd roars.
The second selection from the Czech portion of the concert features pianist Rudolf Firkusny (1912-1994) performing Martinu’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (1956), subtitled “Incantation.” In two movements, it begins in the manner of Bartok–either his Op. 1 Rhapsody or his G Major Concerto–percussively insistent and manic. The music subsides into a fantasia, a series of arpeggiated, mumbling gestures punctuated by the snare and tympani. A horn announces a new, active rhythm, but the piano interrupts with recitative. The harmonies might derive from Ravel or Roussel; certainly they are impressionistic. Dark dissonance rules once more, and Firkusny punishes us with octaves and broken chords. A melody tries to squeeze its way out of the rubble, but the furious motions prevail, some of them reminiscent of the Richard Strauss Burleske. The phantasmagoria continues into the Poco moderato section, which at first sounds like The Miraculous Mandarin. Firkusny calms things down with series of semi-pentatonic riffs, repeated notes, and whole tones. The rhythm increases into an Indian war dance, then a quick, violent fugato. Etudes for the piano ensue, a glittery episode, quasi-cadenza, then repeated riffs that become hymn-like block chords that dissolve into sparkling glissandi clusters. The music becomes martial, majestic, blatantly virtuosic, frenetic; then, over piano ostinato, the music takes on some melos. The huge peroration suggests to me a piano-percussive Pines of Rome via pentatonic means. At the rambunctious and sudden coda, the audience breaks into impressed applause.
The old stand-by Beethoven’s Fifth moves with certainty of purpose, streamlined, efficient. Fate knocks at the door, and the lyrical woodwinds suggest we answer. The trumpet’s key-change motto for the development invites more lyrical outpourings, tempered by a sense that a mighty fist lurks near. Nice work in the oboe and bassoon, especially the former, which leads us into the frenzied recap. The tympani keeps us in touch with our fate and provides the hectic segue to the last pages, where sound and fury converge. A liquid outpouring from the cellos for the second movement opening, now buttressed by fine flute playing. The various periods merge gracefully, fully cognizant that the “idea” of the main rhythm continues to evolve in many forms. The flowing motif already points to the Pastoral Symphony, the flute and oboe adding to the arcadian vision. Quite convincing is the forte statement of the theme; then it combines with the whirling string ostinato to become equally piquant. The last pages combine visceral force with tender mercies, a solid statement. The Allegro (Scherzo) unfolds in a rather linear fashion, with a hint of a ritard in the phraseology. Redemptive are the intensities of the strings, flute, and tympani. The fugato enjoys muscular clarity, even a white heat close to what Erich Kleiber achieved with the Concertgebouw. The finale does in fact launch itself into the stratosphere – the repeat taken without losing an iota of the magnificent fever, Kubelik mounts for his wild ride. The hysterics of the rhythm often point to the Dionysiac Seventh, even as the trumpet and tympanic figures rise, Pelion upon Ossa. For such an inflamed performance, only tears of gratitude may quench them.
— Gary Lemco