Notes and Editorial Reviews
Václav Talich, cond; Czech PO
SUPRAPHON SU 4065-2 (2 CDs: 129:47)
Most discussions of Václav Talich’s complete recordings of
with the Czech Philharmonic consider three. There’s the 1929 version, expansive, untidy in execution, rich in string portamentos;
the very fast, straightforward 1941 performance; and the 1954 version, usually regarded as the best of the lot, and one of the finest recordings of the tone poem cycle ever preserved on disc. The performance heard here, as recorded before an enthusiastic audience at the Prague National Theater on June 5, 1939, has received poor circulation in the past. That probably explains why it’s not even on the horizon when comparisons are in the offing. Its quality as a performance cannot be the cause, as even a cursory listening to what everyone heard in the theater and via Prague Radio that night only confirms the lengthy applause. Less rhetorically old-fashioned than 1929, slower and more detailed than 1941, this performance comes closest to Talich in 1954: the same dramatic coherence, the flexibility in phrasing that seems inevitably right, the tightly focused passion.
The two readings aren’t identical, of course. There’s a bit more of the spontaneity and fire you’d expect from the live concert, while the studio venue is better (but not as much as you might think) from the standpoint of orchestral playing. In 1939, the thrust and clarity of the
theme in its contrapuntal development (5:45), its subsequent broadening out and rhythmic intensification, is a standout. So, too, is the subtly gradual intensification of the tempo at the diminuendo conclusion of
’s central section, and its taut final pages.
You’ve heard the phrase “the audience literally goes wild” before, but this actually happens following a beautifully judged
, before they launch spontaneously into an
performance of their national anthem. It’s all here, and given its occurrence just months after the Nazis had rolled in their troops and put in place a new government, both electrifying and enormously affecting.
The second series of
by Dvorák were performed as well under Talich’s baton, and recorded a little more than a week later, on June 13. They exhibit all the qualities already discussed, in addition to a characterful attention given to solo instruments, and a rhythmic buoyancy that never oversteps the mark into tastelessness.
Both concerts are preceded and followed by the original Prague Radio announcements, made at that time in Czech and French—the broadcast was relayed to Radio Paris; the
are rounded off by the Czech national anthem as played at the source on an unidentified record. The sound system in use was an adaptation of the sound-on-celluloid technique, evolved in the early 1920s for film, a variant of which was also used in the celebrated 1937 Melodiya recording of Glinka’s
Ruslan and Ludmilla
. (Surprisingly, it was not recorded in Prague, but via what must have been a land line, in Oslo.) The result is rough, unsubtle, and rather heavy, not unlike what you hear from music on film soundtracks of the period, with good balance and excellent differentiation between sections. Some deterioration seems to have taken place in
, causing bursts of noise during loud passages, but the reels otherwise are both clear and listenable, with none of the crackle, scratches, and thumps of contemporary shellac discs. Despite a moderately airless venue, there’s a nice bloom to the orchestral strings at all times.
I’m not suggesting that we all trash our 1954 recordings of
. It remains to my mind the greatest realization of the work, a fitting testament to a world-class conductor and orchestra. But anybody who enjoys Talich and the Czech Philharmonic at their finest will want this performance as well, sonic issues and all.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Má vlast by Bedrich Smetana
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1874; Czech Republic
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