At the time of Talich’s birth his father, Jan Talich, was teaching music in the southern Moravian town of Kromĕříž. Shortly afterwards he became a conductor in two other small towns, Roznov and Klatovy, and here he taught his sons Václav the violin and Jan the cello. Václav entered the Prague Conservatory in 1887, studying violin with Jan Mařak and Otakar Sevčik, two outstanding proponents of the Czech school of playing. He graduated in 1903 and immediately joined the violin section of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Arthur Nikisch, shortly afterwards gaining promotion to the post of leader and solo violinist. Illness forced him to leave this position in 1904, but not before Nikisch had made a profound impression upon him, to the extent of deciding that he should seek a career as a conductor. Talich joined the Odessa Opera as leader of the orchestra in 1904, here making his first appearances on the conductor’s podium; and the following year he moved to Tiflis (now Tbilisi) to become professor of violin at the Imperial Academy of Music.
The political situation however was so unstable at this time that Talich decided in 1906 to return to Prague where he was extremely active in several different musical roles, including teaching and conducting amateur orchestras. In addition he became a friend of Josef Suk, the son-in-law of Dvořák. He left Bohemia in 1908 to become conductor of the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera in Ljubljana. During this period he also completed his musical education, studying with the composer Max Reger and violinist Hans Stitt in Leipzig, where he also assisted Nikisch during 1910. Between 1912 and 1915 Talich served as conductor at Pilsen, in Western Bohemia, after which he returned once again to Prague to continue teaching the violin privately and to play with the Czech String Quartet.
At the suggestion of Karel Kovařovic he was invited in 1917 to conduct the young Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (formed in 1894), and the following year his friend Suk entrusted him with the first performance of his orchestral work Ripening. The success of this première established Talich’s reputation as a conductor. From 1919 until 1941 he was chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, apart from a short break between 1931 and 1934 when he was chief conductor of the Stockholm Concert Society. Talich developed the Czech Philharmonic into an orchestra of international stature, yet with its own distinct sonority. With the orchestra he conducted the first performance of Janáček’s Sinfonietta in 1921 and its first recordings, of Smetana’s My Country, in 1929. In addition to this work, from 1932 Talich taught conducting at the Prague Conservatory, and following the death of Otakar Ostrčil in 1935, he became head of the National Theatre in Prague, conducting Dvořák’s Rusalka there in 1936.
During World War II Talich remained active as a conductor, despite the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, but resisted attempts to associate him with the Nazi regime. He declined to lead Wagner’s Lohengrin at the National Theatre to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, but conducted Smetana’s My Country in Berlin and Dresden. He walked out of the National Theatre in 1944 when Nazi officials congratulated the company on a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and was subsequently interrogated by the Gestapo. However, following the cessation of hostilities and the assumption of power by Communist groups in Czechoslovakia, Talich was imprisoned for six weeks during 1945 on grounds of collaboration with the Nazi administration. Although charges were not brought against him he was not allowed to conduct, and instead he turned once more to teaching. With students from the Conservatory he created and trained the Czech Chamber Orchestra, which gave its first concerts in 1946. He did conduct at the National Theatre during the 1947–1948 season, but when the Communist regime insisted in 1948 that the students of the Czech Chamber Orchestra either choose a new conductor or face the dissolution of their orchestra, they chose the latter course of action, a remarkable display of loyalty.
The following year Talich was invited to form the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Bratislava, and to serve as its first chief conductor, which he did until 1952. In addition from 1948 onwards he was permitted to conduct radio broadcasts, as well as to make recordings, predominantly of Czech music with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, including a superbly-turned account of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1951). Eventually in May 1954 he was allowed to conduct the Czech Philharmonic in a public concert once more. He continued to give concerts with the orchestra until November 1954, when illness forced him to give up his public appearances, although he continued to make recordings and radio and television broadcasts until 1956. Film has survived of him conducting the complete Slavonic Dances of Dvořák for television in 1955. Severely weakened by illness Talich retired to his home in Beroun, to the east of Prague, where he died in 1961.
Although Talich’s recorded legacy consists mainly of Czech music, of which he was a supreme interpreter, he was also a most stylish conductor of composers as varied as Mozart and Tchaikovsky. He was a methodical and detailed rehearser, often insisting upon sectional and even individual rehearsals in order to achieve the results which he sought. His performances on record possess a sense of spontaneous naturalness as well as great authority. Especially fine are his interpretations of the works of Suk, such as his Asrael Symphony. Talich’s influence as a teacher was considerable: his pupils included the conductors Karel Ančerl, Jaroslav Krombholc, Ladislav Slovák, and Charles Mackerras.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).