|About this Recording
8.111331 - DVORAK, A.: Slavonic Dances, Opp. 46 and 72 / Carnival Overture (Talich) (1935)
Great Conductors: Václav Talich (1883–1961)
When he made these records in November 1935, Václav Talich was at the apogee of his career as the most charismatic Czech conductor in history. Overwork had caused his health to break down but he was now back on track and at the top of his form. Sadly, events beyond his control, caused by the aggressive empire-building of Adolf Hitler, would curtail what promised to be a serene plateau in Talich’s artistic life. But for a precious few years, he and the orchestra with which his name was synonymous, the Czech Philharmonic, were able to work harmoniously at home and tour successfully abroad. Posterity was to reap rich rewards, in the form of superb recordings made in both Prague and London—not just with Talich but with his younger colleagues Rafael Kubelík and George Szell. The orchestra’s autumn London visits, beginning in 1935, became eagerly awaited events, not only by the concert-going audience at Queen’s Hall but by the HMV technicians at Abbey Road Studios, who liked working with such a well rehearsed band.
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. Aged eight, he heard Dvořák perform the Dumky with Ferdinand Lachner and Hanuš Wihan. His violin tutors at the Prague Conservatory (1897–1903) were the best, Jan Marák and Otakar Ševčík. He met his hero Dvořák who, ever thrifty, advised Talich to smoke cheroots rather than cigars to conserve his cash. 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 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 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 CPO for the première of Suk’s symphonic poem Ripening in 1918 when the manager burst in to say that the Czechs had 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 in 1928 gave the London première of Holst’s Egdon Heath. In 1927, at the Smetana Hall in Prague, he and the orchestra presented a programme of contemporary British music: Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro (which stayed in the orchestra’s repertoire); Delius’s Paris; Holst’s Fugal Overture; and Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony. Talich was a great Wagnerian and one would like to have heard the all-Wagner programme that he and the Moscow Philharmonic gave in 1932, with Reizen singing Wotan’s Farewell and Derzhinskaya Isolde’s Liebestod. Talich also headed the Konsertföreningen Orchestra in Stockholm (1927–34); in fact he gave 254 concerts in Sweden, leading to a breakdown. He recovered and from 1935 was in charge of the National Theatre in Prague, in addition to his close ties with the Czech Philharmonic, but began to delegate some of the touring work with the orchestra to the younger Kubelík and Szell.
When Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans, Talich was placed in an impossible position. Although Talich 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 occupiers, 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 Zdenûk Nejedly´, 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 Vitûzslav Novák. Absolved of all charges, he returned to the National Theatre and made his last foreign trip, to Stockholm, in 1946, but was still prevented from working with the Czech Philharmonic. He formed his own Czech Chamber Orchestra but when the Communists took over in 1948, he was accused yet again: his nemesis Nejedly´ was even more powerful 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 régime 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 orchestra in concert in 1954 and in the studio the following year. He died at Beroun on 16 March 1961.
Talich and the Czech Philharmonic made their début recording for HMV in Prague in 1929, a complete set of Má Vlast. The visit of orchestra and conductor to London in 1935 for three concerts provided the opportunity to document them in the magnificent Studio No. 1 at Abbey Road, where the art of 78rpm recording had been brought to its peak. The 100 musicians spent Saturday 23 November there with Talich, recording a wonderful Dvořák Eighth Symphony. Next day they appeared, before a disappointingly small audience, at a Palladium Sunday-afternoon concert, playing Dvořák’s Carnival Overture and Eighth Symphony and Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture. On Monday evening Queen’s Hall was sold out for Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture, Dvořák’s ‘New World’, Novák’s In the Tatras, Suk’s Serenade and three of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances; and an equally full house on Tuesday heard Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto, Beethoven’s Fourth, songs featuring the enchanting soprano Jarmila Novotná, Martinů’s La Bagarre, Smetana’s Sarka and more Slavonic Dances. The following day the party recorded all sixteen Slavonic Dances at Abbey Road; and on the 28th they set down the Carnival Overture.
Whereas the Eighth Symphony, like Talich’s later recordings of the Sixth and Seventh and the Suk Serenade, came out on the prestige red label, the Slavonic Dances and Carnival were put on to the cheaper plum label, the dances on four twelve-inch discs and five ten-inch, the overture on a single twelve-inch. Released piecemeal from March 1936 to February 1937, they stayed in the British catalogue until February 1948. They bear out the critical comments on the concerts. The Times reported that the Slavonic Dances ‘proclaimed aloud the secret of the orchestra’s unique power’, the critic feeling that in Carnival ‘it was a pleasure to hear the percussion-instruments played so discreetly and with such rhythmic exactness that they fulfilled their proper function in the background of the picture instead of obtruding themselves, as they too often do, into the very front’. Neville Cardus of The Manchester Guardian thought the Czech Philharmonic ‘played with a warm mellowness of harmony that is seldom heard even from the best of the London orchestras’. Certainly the Slavonic Dances give Talich the chance to show the full panoply of his skills in subtlety of rhythm and orchestral colour. In Carnival, the strings’ natural portamento lends lovely curves to the second theme, while in the quiet interlude the delicately rustic Czech woodwinds come into their own and a beautifully inflected solo is heard from the orchestra’s great leader Stanislav Novák. Talich was to return to all this music in the 1950s but these 1935 recordings catch an immortal partnership in full flood and vigour.
The Slavonic Dances were transferred from prewar American Victor “Red Seal Scroll” label pressings, their most quiet form of issue, while the Carnival Overture came from wartime Victor shellacs. The best portions of sides from multiple copies were used in order to minimize sonic deficiencies.
GREAT CONDUCTORS • VÁCLAV TALICH
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra • Václav Talich
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