About this Recording
8.111045 - DVORAK: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (Czech PO, Talich) (1938, 1935)
English 

Great Conductors: Václav Talich
Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8

 

For almost forty years the name of Václav Talich was synonymous with the great orchestra he conducted, the Czech Philharmonic. Their symbiotic relationship had to survive war and political interference but gave rise to some of the finest recordings in the history of the gramophone. Born in Kroměříž, Moravia, on 28 May 1883, Talich had the classic Czech musical background: his father was a 'cantor' who started him on the violin at five. At the age of eight, he heard Dvořák perform the Dumky Trio with Ferdinand Lachner and Hanuš Wihan. His violin tutors at the Prague Conservatory (1897-1903) were the best, Jan Mařák and Otakar Ševčík. He met his hero Dvořák who, ever thrifty, advised Talich to smoke cheroots rather than cigars to conserve his money. In Berlin he played under Arthur Nikisch and was inspired to conduct but suffered the first of many health crises. He worked in Odessa, Tbilisi, Prague, Ljubljana and Pilsen as both orchestral and opera conductor, taking a year off in 1910 to study in Leipzig (with Reger, Sitt and Nikisch) as well as Milan. He first conducted the Czech Philharmonic in 1917. Wherever he was, he usually organized a string quartet – he said he learnt more from rehearsing as guest viola with the legendary Bohemian Quartet than from any other activity. He became friendly with the ensemble's second violinist, the composer Josef Suk, and was preparing the Czech Philharmonic for the première of Suk's symphonic poem Ripening in 1918 when the manager burst in to say that the Czechs had now achieved their dream of a republic, named Czechoslovakia. 'That's all very well,' Talich typically replied, 'but we have to rehearse.' By 1919 he was chief conductor but the orchestra, founded in 1896 by Dvořák and conducted in its early years by his pupil Oskar Nedbal, was not in the best of order. Talich built it up with endless rehearsing and by 1922 was confident enough to take the orchestra on a tour of Italy. He loved Britain, which he first visited in 1923 as a guest conductor: he conducted the Scottish Orchestra a good deal (1925-27) and he gave the London première of Holst's Egdon Heath in 1928. He also headed the Konsertföreningen Orchestra in Stockholm (1927-34); in fact he gave 254 concerts in Sweden, leading to a breakdown in his health. He recovered and from 1935 was in charge of the National Theatre in Prague, in addition to his post with the Czech Philharmonic, but began to delegate some of the touring work with the orchestra to the younger Rafael Kubelík and George Szell.

When Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans, Talich was placed in an impossible position. Although he had given up the Czech Philharmonic in 1941, Josef Goebbels made him 'an offer he couldn't refuse', ordering him to tour Germany with the orchestra. Talich insisted on taking Smetana's nationalistic suite Má Vlast, banned by the German authorities in Czechoslovakia, and the visit was so successful that this music, almost sacred to Czechs, was again permitted in Prague. Even so, in 1945 Talich was accused of collaboration. He walked thirty kilometres in twelve hours from his home in Beroun to Prague, in the hope of conducting Smetana's Libuše to mark the end of the war, only to be barred from his own opera house. His chief accuser, the critic Zdeněk Nejedlý, hated Talich because he felt that the Dvořák faction in Czech music had unfairly supplanted the Smetana faction. Although Talich was a magnificent conductor of Smetana's music, including the operas, he was identified with the 'Dvořák wing' because of his closeness to Suk and Vitězslav Novák. He was absolved of all charges and returned to the National Theatre, also making his last foreign trip, to Stockholm, in 1946; but he was still prevented from working with the Czech Philharmonic, so formed his own Czech Chamber Orchestra. When the Communist takeover came in 1948, he was accused yet again and found that his enemy Nejedlý had even more political power than before. He was dismissed from the National Theatre, had to disband his chamber orchestra and, like Nedbal in the 1920s, was exiled to Bratislava, where he built up the Slovak Philharmonic (1949-52). Meanwhile the Communist government in Prague, though making it difficult for him to conduct the Czech Philharmonic in public, allowed him to record with the orchestra, as he was the only conductor in the country with an international reputation (Kubelík had fled in 1948). By the mid-1950s the pressure was off Talich but he was a broken man. He last conducted the Czech Philharmonic in concert in 1954 and in the studio the following year. He died at Beroun on 16 March 1961.

Talich has sometimes thoughtlessly been compared with Wilhelm Furtwängler but he was closer to Arturo Toscanini in his technical control, uncanny rhythmic sense, subtle flexibility, willingness to rethink interpretations and humility towards the music – in retirement he was still studying Dvořák's 'New World' Symphony, saying: 'I would conduct it very plainly now, without all the Romantic silt.' The listener will never feel with Talich that a giant ego is being placed between him and the composer. Moreover, like Toscanini, Talich had the inner power to thrust a musical point home. Fortunately he left a number of recordings, even though there are gaping gaps in his discography – virtually no Beethoven, no Haydn, no Schubert, no Martinů, almost no opera. Talich made his début recording for HMV in Prague in 1929, a complete set of Má Vlast with the Czech Philharmonic. In 1935 he brought the orchestra to London, where they gave concerts and spent several days at the studios in Abbey Road, making legendary Dvořák recordings: an exciting Carnival Overture, an exhilarating set of Slavonic Dances and the performance of the Eighth Symphony that is reproduced here. It is a heartfelt interpretation of Dvořák's most characteristic symphony, which seems to put one directly in touch with the composer. The leader Stanislav Novák's violin solos are exquisite, the pacing of each movement is flawless and the strings sliding up and down in the Scherzo are irresistible. Talich shapes the work in the traditional manner, making the opening bars into a slow introduction. Critics of a pedantic persuasion have questioned this practice but it may well stem from Dvořák and Nedbal – and the most important point is that it works. In Talich's hands the tempo changes become organic and inevitable and it is astonishing to think that he was having to stop the orchestra every five minutes. (Editing was impossible in 78rpm days and each five-minute side had to be repeated until the engineers were satisfied that they had two 'takes' good enough to issue – experience had proved that it was necessary to have a spare copy of every side.) This wonderful performance of the G major Symphony is doubly important because Talich's 1951 remake is disappointing by comparison: every rethought tempo goes the wrong way, the first movement is impatient and the finale is indulgent, a rare fault with Talich.

In 1938, just after the Munich betrayal, conductor and orchestra were back at Abbey Road to record supple accounts of Dvořák's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and a dewy-fresh, transparent version of Suk's Serenade. Although Stanislav Novák did not go on this tour, the orchestra was led by another great violinist, Alexander Plocek. Talich left the public concerts to Kubelík but took charge of most of the recordings. The Dvořák D minor Symphony, heard on this disc, would be important even if it were not such a great performance, as Talich never had the opportunity to record the work again. This symphony has always been popular in England, as it was written in 1884-85 for the Philharmonic Society and was given its première in London under Dvořák's own direction on 22 April 1885; but non-Czech conductors have often made it sound like Brahms. Not the least of Talich's achievements is that he renders every bar as the purest Dvořák. His interpretation is a virtually ideal amalgam of lyricism and strength and he is given whole-hearted support by his magnificent players. The natural portamento of the strings here is exactly what Dvořák would have expected to hear, and the entire orchestra is a credit to its conductor's painstaking training. Film of Talich in action shows that he used sparing gestures but had an expressive left hand and a wonderful way of caressing not just the main melody but a counter-melody too.

Václav Talich was due to visit London again in 1939 with his National Theatre company but it was not to be. Although his interaction with the magnificent recording team built up by HMV at Abbey Road was of short duration, it produced results of the highest quality. The Czech Philharmonic has played these two symphonies under many other conductors but never quite as convincingly as on these recordings.

Tully Potter

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Producer's Note

The symphonies were transferred from pre-war U.S. Victor pressings, the Seventh from a "Gold" label copy and the Eighth from a Red Seal Scroll edition, both being the most quiet form of shellac on which these albums were issued.

Mark Obert-Thorn


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