Smetana Má Vlast
An extraordinary occasion is captured on this disc. Rafael Kubelik was five years into retirement from the concert platform, and had just recovered from serious illness, when political changes in his native land enabled him to return home and conduct the Czech Philharmonic for the first time in 42 years. As he prepared for his visit he must have recalled his experiences with the Czech orchestra over many years. He made his debut with them in 1934; he took them on pre-war tours of England and Belgium; and was appointed their chief conductor in the dark days of 1942, when he was only 28 years old. He was still head of the orchestra and conducting Glyndebourne's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the 1948 Edinburgh Festival, when the Communists took over Czechoslovkia. He stayed in the West and decided never to visit his country until it was free again.
To be on the Smetana Hall's podium once again must have been a highly emotional experience for the 76-year-old Kubelik, but there is not a hint of any stress or weakness in his conducting, and the orchestra respond magnificently. The audience, too, aware of being at an historic occasion, are silent, except for a quiet rustle between movements, and in fact none of the disadvantages which normally affect live performances are present. The recording is perfectly clear, but not particularly vivid, and the string sound in particular is disappointingly unglamorous. But one can still perceive something of the old authentic Czech timbre in the orchestra, even if its woodwind section has lost that delightfully rustic quality still present even in the 1950s.
The performance is quite magnificent. Kubelik knows the score intimately—this is his fifth recording of it—and only Vaclav Talich in his later recording (Supraphon—nla) has ever conducted the cycle with greater authority and under- standing. Talich imbued it with a heroic, dramatic quality; Kubelik's interpretation is a little softer in outline. There's an abundance of spirit and energy in his conducting, but he finds a more lyrical vein, and even Smetana's least inspired passages are cleverly managed so that they sound fresh and brightly painted. How beautiful the finest movement, ''Vltava'' sounds, with perfectly chosen tempos, piquant orchestral timbres, and the most imaginative touches of detail. The wide open spaces of ''From Bohemia's Woods and Fields'' are vividly brought to one's gaze too. And it is particularly noticeable that when dance rhythms appear in the score Kubelik points them very clearly, which gives relief and contrast to the more bombastic moments.
A most distinguished performance, then, as well as a record of a notable occasion'