About this Recording
8.112050 - DVORAK, A.: Symphony No. 6 / SUK, J.: Serenade in E-Flat Major / Into a New Life (Talich) (1938)

Great Conductors: Václav Talich (1883–1961)
SUK: Sokol March • Serenade for Strings • DVOŘÁK: Symphony No 6


These great recordings, made in November 1938 by the Czech Philharmonic and its charismatic conductor Václav Talich, almost did not happen. Throughout that year, the relatively new state of Czechoslovakia was under intolerable pressure from Adolf Hitler. Czechs and Germans had long lived uneasily side by side in Bohemia and Moravia, a duality expressed musically in the fact that Prague had both German and Czech opera houses and chamber music societies. By 31 August 1938, the agitation caused by German inhabitants of the area closest to Germany, the Sudetenland, and Hitler’s threats to come to their ‘assistance’, led to the British ambassador to Prague being recalled for crisis talks in London. On 23 September general Czech mobilisation followed prime minister Milan HodÏa’s resignation and his replacement by General Jan Syrov7; but the British and French prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, sold out the Czechs at the infamous Munich meeting with Hitler and Mussolini. On 1 October Hitler took over the Sudetenland and in March 1939 he occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile the British impresario Harold Holt was preparing, as he did every autumn, to present what he always billed as ‘the national orchestra of Czechoslovakia, the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra’; and the technicians of His Master’s Voice at Abbey Road Studios were expecting to record the orchestra as usual. In 1937 the CPO had toured with the brilliant 23-year-old conductor Rafael Kubelík and records had been made with him and George Szell. For 1938, Kubelík was again to be in command of the tour and Talich was to arrive at the end to take the HMV sessions. But on 10 October Holt heard from Kubelík that most of the players were still in uniform and deployed around the country. Fortunately the Czech minister in London was Jan Masaryk, son of Czechoslovakia’s first president and an excellent musician (he would later accompany Jarmila Novotná on a famous set of records of Czech folk-songs). His urgent call to General Syrov7 produced the desired result; and on 2 November the CPO started the tour with a concert in Birmingham. Sixteen more dates followed, two of them in London, before the tour ended in Cardiff on the 20th; at 9.40 the following evening the orchestra gave a live broadcast of Smetana’s Libuše Overture and Šárka, Novák’s Slovak Suite and three of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances; and next morning the players were recording with Talich at Abbey Road. The tour repertoire included Berlioz’s Carnaval romain, Franck’s Symphony, Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings and Martinů’s Second Piano Concerto (with Rudolf Firkušný), but only Dvořák’s D minor Symphony from the works planned for recording. Somehow Talich and his men found the time to bring the other pieces to the pitch of preparation heard on this compact disc.

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 Mařák 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 organised a string quartet—he said he learnt more from rehearsing as guest viola with the 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 early on 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 CPO on a tour of Italy. He loved Britain, which he first visited in 1923 as a guest maestro: 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 CPO 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), although his 254 concerts in Sweden led 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 CPO, but began to delegate some touring work with the orchestra to the younger Kubelík and Szell.

When Czechoslovakia was occupied, Talich was placed in an impossible position. Although he had given up the CPO 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 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 Libušeto mark the end of the war, only to be barred from his own opera house. His chief accuser, the critic Zdenûk Nejedl7, 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 kept apart from the CPO. He formed his own Czech Chamber Orchestra but when the Communists took over in 1948, he was accused yet again: his nemesis Nejedl7 was even more powerful. 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 regime in Prague, though making it difficult for him to conduct the CPO 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 CPO in concert in 1954 and in the studio the following year. He died at Beroun on 16 March 1961.

Talich and the CPO 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. At the 1938 sessions, the matrix numbers suggest that on the morning of the 22nd, Suk’s Sokol March ‘Into a New Life’ (later to provide the Prague Radio tuning signal) and five sides of Dvořák’s D major Symphony were set down; and in the afternoon the remaining five sides of the symphony and the first four sides of the Suk Serenade were done. On the 23rd, the other four sides of the Serenade and all ten sides of Dvořák’s D minor Symphony (available on Naxos 8.111045) were set down. It was a daunting work load but Talich had an amazing band at his disposal, the violinists trained by such pedagogues as Mařák, Ševčík, Jaroslav Kocián, Karel Hoffmann, Stĕpan Suchý and Jindřich Bastař.

At the premier desk sat the great soloist Alexander Plocek (1914–82), a Ševčík and Kocián pupil, and second concertmaster Egon Ledeč (1889–1944), a Ševčík, Kocián and Hoffmann alumnus who was to die in the Holocaust. Among the firsts were Kocian’s pupils Tomáš Hála (a member for 37 years, the last eight as a concertmaster) and Ludvík Němeček; Hoffmann’s pupils Josef Štika and Karel Zoubek; Suchy’s protégé Jan Rezek; and Josef Micka, a pupil of Bastař and Jacques Thibaud who was to mentor many string ensembles, starting with the Smetana Quartet. The seconds were led by Zdeněk Kolářsky, a Mařák and Kocian pupil; the violas by Václav Král; the cellos by Václav Černý who had graced the illustrious Prague Quartet for a time; and the basses by Bohuslav Oupic—among his colleagues was Karel Šejna, who would conduct the orchestra with distinction after the war. First flute was Karel Hanzl, first oboe Josef Deda (with Frantíšek Hanták second), first clarinet the legendary Vladimír Říha, first bassoon the inimitable Karel Bidlo, first horn Oldfiich Séligr, first trumpet Rudolf Lisy. No wonder Neville Cardus, encountering the CPO at the Paramount Cinema, Manchester, wrote that it ‘made one listener, at least, feel that he had seldom, if ever, heard a more appealing orchestra anywhere’. At home Talich, like Koussevitzky, liked to build up his orchestral sound on the foundation of ten double-basses; but only eight had been brought on tour for logistical reasons, although Kubelík had been allowed nine the previous year.

Two of the recordings in our programme, Suk’s lively march and Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony, are unique to Talich’s discography. The conductor was to return to the Suk Serenade in 1951 but in the present writer’s opinion that version, for all its fame, betrays too much of the introspection of the by then beleaguered Talich. This 1938 rendering, by contrast, is far more expressive of the youthful freshness of the music, indeed it is difficult to think of a lovelier performance of anything by Talich. The conductor even left his mark on this score: after he had gently criticised the ending of the Adagio, Suk wrote the little passage for two solo violins which is so beautifully executed here by Plocek and Ledeč.

Tully Potter


Producer’s Note

The sources for the present transfers were British HMV shellacs for the Dvořák and the first three movements of the Suk Serenade, and prewar American Victor “Gold” label pressings for the remaining tracks. The Suk Sokol March (Talich’s only recording of the work) is a particular rarity, and it has never previously appeared on LP or CD. These recordings, along with Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony (Naxos Historical 8.111045), were taken down over two days of sessions at the Abbey Road Studios while the ensemble was on tour. Along with their recordings of the Dvořák Eighth (also on 8.111045), the complete Slavonic Dances and the Carnival Overture (8.111331), all of which were recorded during their 1935 tour, this CD completes our survey of Talich’s prewar London recordings.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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