Notes and Editorial Reviews
This DVD presents the last recording that Václav Talich (1883–1961) made of Dvo?ák’s
. In the years 1919–1941, he raised the Czech Philharmonic from a thoroughly provincial orchestra to one of the world’s great ensembles. Having led the orchestra during the Second World War, he was accused of collaboration with the Germans. Even though he was acquitted of all suspicion, he was not allowed to conduct in Prague for some years; most of his postwar recordings with the Czech Philharmonic come from the 1950s. These 1955 recordings, made in a Prague television studio, were among his last; a Supraphon CD dates his recording of Suk’s
April 28, 1956 (there is not as yet a reliable Talich discography).
The 1955 black-and-white television film is well lit, and the camera work is excellent, although depth-of-field problems can leave some areas fuzzy. We never view the entire orchestra at one moment, but it appears to be at full strength. As many as 10 double basses are visible—the exact number is difficult to determine, as the conductor’s head is in the way of most shots of that section. There were no women in the orchestra at the time. Multiple cameras are at work, with the conductor on view about one third of the time; many different angles are used for the orchestra, although the cameras cannot always keep up: They pan to the horns and trombones just as their passage is completed. Unfortunately, the recorded sound is thin and edgy, with much distortion in the upper registers and congestion in the low end. In addition, assorted pops and crackles suggest that the source (tapes?) may have deteriorated over the years. Quiet moments are comparatively decent, so over-modulation of the original recording may be to blame for some of the problems.
Talich, at age 72, looks a tired and sad old man on the podium, more so than in contemporary shots in the accompanying biographical material. Nevertheless, when his baton drops, wild, spirited music erupts. The C-Major Dance, op. 46/1, races along at a near-impossible tempo, yet every detail is in place. Most of the Dances are taken a touch faster than in his 1950 studio recordings. The orchestral precision would delight a George Szell on a bad day, yet the spirit is vital and free, with every nuance in place. Much of the time, Talich’s baton moves barely an inch, in Fritz Reiner style. As one expects with this orchestra, woodwinds are beautiful. With better sound, these would be recordings for the ages; as it is, one has to be sympathetic to historical recordings to get through these 71 minutes.
The 46-minute biographical film, from 2004, pans across still pictures and documents of the conductor’s early family life, his training, and his early appearances with an orchestra. A few fake modern shots intrude: an actor’s hands imitating Nikisch’s. In the era of Talich’s mature fame, there are a few film clips as well. His daughter, two former Czech Philharmonic players, a grandnephew, and Sir Charles Mackerras are interviewed. All but the latter speak Czech, with a choice of French, German, or English subtitles. The film’s title comes from Mackerras telling us of advice in a letter from Talich: “A conductor must seem self-confident, almost egotistical in front of his players, but in the privacy of his own study must humble himself before the composer.” Music accompanies almost every minute of the documentary: Smetana, Dvo?ák, Suk, Mí?a, and Tchaikovsky conducted by Talich; plus a dozen other snippets. Finally, there is a gallery of still pictures, many included in the biography, which identify the participants.
Václav Talich has remained one of the lesser known of the great conductors of the past, at least in the United States. This DVD is a useful corrective for that situation.
FANFARE: James H. North
Works on This Recording
Slavonic Dances (8) for Orchestra, Op. 46/B 83 by Antonín Dvorák
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1878; Bohemia
Slavonic Dances (8) for Orchestra, Op. 72/B 147 by Antonín Dvorák
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1886-1887; Bohemia
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