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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Rafael Kubelik and Ma Vlast

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This is the third of Pierre's Twelve Days of Blogging.

Related thread: Smetana's Mighty Ma Vlast
Cette réflexion en français

Back in June, I posted a TDMH post (the first one I wrote) on Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations. Today, my topic is another encounter between musician and masterpiece, this time involving a major orchestral work recorded by the same conductor several times.

About the Work

Ma Vlast (transl. My Country, or My Fatherland) is a tone poem cycle by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884). Though other Czech composers (Dvořák and Suk) wrote a lot of folk-inspired music from their moheland, Ma Vlast stands out as being more of a patriotic work, not unlike Sibelius' Finlandia, for instance.

The six tone poems that make-up Ma Vlast are a mix of folklore, legend and atmosphere. From the on-set, the poems were meant to be played as part of a larger group, and Smetana makes use of Leitmotivs and other such devices to sew the music together into one large fabric.

Of the lot, Vltava (The Moldau) is probably the most famous, having been recorded as a stand-alone piece by almost every major conductor. However, one cannot lose sight of the other five, as they all have their own charm and particular potency.

Many people have their favourite Ma Vlast rendition - one of the more famous ones is an old Supraphon recording of the Czech Philharmonic under their legendary conductor, Vaclav Talich. This performance, now in the public domain, can be found here.

The Conductor

Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) is a member of the great generation of conductors born between 1908 and 1920 which includes names like Bernstein, Karajan and Giulini. After graduating from the Prague conservatory, he gives his first performance as conductor with the Czech Philharmonic in 1937, and becomes its Principal Conductor in 1942, succeeding Talich.

When the Communist regime takes hold in then-Czechoslovakia, he chooses exile and leaves his homeland in 1948 going first to England, then to the USA where he becomes the Music Director oif the Chicago Symphony (1950–1953), then music director at Covent Garden (1955 -1958). He guest conducts regularly in Berlin and Vienna and, in 1961, begins a near-20 year tenure with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1961–1979).

This particular relationship sees Kubelik record a seminal Mahler Cycle (discussed in a past post), as well as many recordings of works from the classical, romanitic and Second Viennese periods. However, Kubelik's wheel-house repertoire remains Czech and Bohemian music by Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů et Smetana.

The Kubelik / Ma Vlast Marriage

While still in Prage in 1847, Kubelik sets up the "Prague Spring Music Festival". It is the tradition at this festival that Ma Vlast be played iat the inaugural concert, and that Beethoven's Ninth be played at the closing concert.

There is no better match than that of Kubelik and Ma Vlast - the patriotic Czech work performed by the sensitive conductor, hopping all over Europe and North-America while longing for his homeland.

Comparing the Recordings

Kubelik's Ma Vlast discography numbers five commercial recordings, in addition to one DVD performance and (who knows how many) bootlegs of concert poerformances. What is striking about these recordings is the steadfast vision and high standard of performance that he achieves in all of them, despite the almost 40 year timespan covered (with the requisite changes in technology) and the fact he achieves this with five different orchestras, some of which aren't household names when it comes to Czech music.

Here they are, in chronological order, with links to download the performances.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Mercury, 1952)


This is one of the few enduring musical documents of the Kubelik Chicago years. This is a MONO recording, but was engineered by Mercury's technicians and is thus "state of the art" for the early 1950's. Even after 60 years, the music comes through with all the colour and splendor, albeit some of the dynamics rendered by the orchestra push the envelope for the recording technology. Some will argue this to be the finest of the recordings, and I agree that it is a strong, moving performance.

Wiener Philharmoniker (Decca, 1959)


The good: this is a stereophonic recording, featuring an excellent orchestra. The bad: the technology is new, and the recording suffers. I find it to be "flatter" than the Mercury recording, despite the potential of the stereo technology. This has been many-times remastered, but still comes short of the overall impression created in the earlier recording, I am sorry to say...

Boston Symphony Orchestra (DG, 1971)


When the Boston Symphony entered into an exclusive recording arrangement with Deutsche Grammophon, the BSO was transitioning from its many years under Charles Munch to the soon-to-be long tenure of Seiji Ozawa. There are a great number of BSO recordings featuring guest conductors: Claudio Abbado, Michael Tilson-Thomas... and Rafael Kubelik.

For many, many years this was the reference recording of Ma Vlast. And why not! One cannot deny the virtuosity of the BSO, and especially the woodwind section, and how it is so masterfully applied to Smetana's music. Add to that the rich acoustics of Bostoon's Symphony Hall and the superior recording engineers of DG, and you have here the perfect storm, and a historic performance.

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Orfeo, 1984)


Recorded in concert, this performance is - I believe - the audio release of the DVD performance of Ma Vlast featured here:

Česká filharmonie (Supraphon, 1990)


It is an accepted fact that conductors rarely retire - and when one does, it is probably for health reasons. Kubelik suffered from near-debilitating arthritis, and he was forced into retirement in the mid-1980's.

Then, there were radical political changes in Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovakia was transformed. In 1990 (as Prague was undergoing these changes) Kuubelik was invited by his old orchestra to come and conduct the opening concert of that year's Spring Festival - this memorable performance was recorded for posterity, and we should be glad that it was!

The emotion and electricity of that performance is captured bit for bit on this my favourite rendition of Ma Vlast.

For this Boxing Day, when you are done shopping, make sure you have a listen to one of these many great performances - call this my late Christmas present to all of you!

See you tomorrow.