Česky English

Czech Philharmonic Conductors and a few more recollections besides

(From the book by František Sláma From Herálec to Shangri-La.  English translation: Karolina Vočadlo Hughes)

 

 

The Czech Philharmonic with Karel Ančerl, 1950s 

 

Fire in the Rudolfinum

In 1964 the famous violinist Ida Haendel was appearing in Prague and, on this occasion, the Philharmonic teamed up with her to record Lalo's ↗Spanish Symphony↗ for Supraphon. The recording took place in the Rudolfinum and was preceded by the requisite acoustic tests - the trickiest passages from the point of view of the overall sound, sections of the violin part covered extensively by the orchestra and so on. Then, all of a sudden, we noticed a strange blue mist in the hall and, judging by its density and smell, we realised that it wasn't coming from the Philharmonic canteen. We all went outside, more out of curiosity than anything else, to the occasional murmur of sceptical comments or wisecracks. Behind the podium, though, the smoke was much thicker and flames were whipping almost to the level of the second floor.

The fire brigade took a good while to arrive. They got out of their vehicles and made their way to the Rudolfinum at a leisurely pace. When they saw us, they smiled in amusement, but the sight that greeted them inside urged them to act quickly. A destructive fire-fighting offensive began which transformed the interior of the Rudolfinum into a battlefield in seconds. At that moment I thought of the Herálec firemen, role models that they were, and in spirit saluted my fellow-countrymen.

The cause of this memorable incident would today be defined as human error: someone threw a cigarette end into a waste-paper basket while it was still burning. Fortunately, the fire only affected the back-stage area; the Dvořák Hall got away unscathed, but only just. We finished the recording over the next few days, even though the drenched, seared corridor didn't make for a very cosy environment. Naturally, a smoking ban throughout the building was put into effect immediately.

 

 

 

Conductors and a few more recollections besides

Certainly not everyone observed the smoking ban. Cellist André Navarra, for instance, couldn't function without a cigarette in his mouth and, even during recordings, he smoked one Gitanes after another. When Ančerl was going over something with the orchestra, Navarra would relax for a while - somewhat carelessly - by resting his full weight on his instrument, one leg crossed over the other, as always, and he'd have a lit cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, its lengthening ash threatening to drop to the floor at any moment. Then it was his turn to come in, he would be galvanised into action, which sent a shower of ash onto the precious Guarneri he was always showing off.  Cigarette after cigarette would mercilessly and unremittingly scatter ash onto his pride and joy and he didn't even seem to notice. 

Janos Ferencsik was another heavy smoker. He didn't really make use of the conductor's room and, whenever he came to Prague, he spent his free time with us in the canteen. He naturally got on very well with our flautist Géza Novák - they'd chat to one another even when the orchestra was playing, in Hungarian, of course. Once, we were rehearsing a new, quite difficult programme with Ferencsik, involving Kodály and Bartók. After our experiences with other conductors, we were expecting to rehearse until we dropped. Sometimes conductors began to unearth mistakes even during the full rehearsal; the atmosphere became tense and then the concert itself couldn't be expected to go well. But not with Ferencsik. He led us through the pieces with a sure hand while, at the same time, gradually cutting down the rehearsal schedule as he went. Only the intensity of our rehearsals increased and no time was wasted. His Kodály and Bartók were a true revelation for Prague, but he was also wonderful with Mozart and Beethoven, whose music he also recorded with us after the war as one of the first to do so.

A few years after the war someone came up with the idea to "open up the concert halls to the masses", thus practically all the tickets were handed out to the general public. The public, however, were more inclined towards other genres. The majority of those who received tickets for free didn't turn up, and the snobs just came to hear the truly big names whose concerts they couldn't pass up without disgracing themselves in social circles. Only once this period had passed did our old audiences return to the fold and, later on, even those born after the war started coming to our concerts. At the beginning of the 1960s, there were so many young concert-goers that, for some of the series, they filled up the aisles between the seats, part of the podium and the organ gallery. 

André Cluytens was more a member of the new generation of conductors: greying blond hair, tanned and sporty-looking, and always closely shaved. He arrived for work in good humour and a smile was never far away. He must have liked our country, he often returned to Prague and he was good to work with as well. He did Symphonie fantastique with us for the first time at some point in 1955, and it was brilliant. We only had three rehearsals for it but we hadn't experienced such rapturous applause in the Smetana Hall for a long time. For one thing, Cluytens was able to get the maximum from the orchestra during a concert and, for another, people took it for a kind of sporting face-off. The superb Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky had performed for the first time in this country some days before. The audience had the chance to compare the two and was evidently delighted that the home team was in good form as well. Even the full rehearsal for our concert was extremely well attended, although it wasn't public. People went up to stand by the organ. Then one jittery musician jumped up irritably and waved his arms about to try and get the intruders to leave. Cluytens's face lit up with a smile and he turned to the protester: "Could you tell me why your eyes are turned to those people up there when you should be watching me conduct?"

 

   

  André Cluytens conducts the Czech Philharmonic, 1950s

 

Sir John Barbirolli came to us on several occasions, for the first time in 1960, namely when he had already been head of the famous Hallé orchestra for more than 15 years; he also conducted the BBC. The older members of the Philharmonic told us how his father had played under Toscanini in La Scala, and they were familiar with the turbulent events surrounding Barbirolli junior and the New York Philharmonic, and the fact that he didn't apply for American citizenship and returned to Europe. We knew that he had once worked with Kreisler and Rubinstein, that he loved Italian opera and that he also promoted modern British composers like Britten and Vaughan Williams, whom we in the Czech Chamber Orchestra had recently come to know thanks to Václav Talich. Record-collectors were on the look-out for recordings Barbirolli had conducted for Vanguard and EMI. And the cellists were universally aware of his fondness for Elgar's concerto. In short, older members of the Philharmonic who knew him, and audiences who had heard him perform, loved him. His reputation as a conducting legend preceded him and we novices were all the more intrigued by him. He was a small chap, with huge circles under his wide dark eyes and black tousled hair. From the neck down he resembled Chaplin and, like him, he gave the impression that his feet were too big. Where music was concerned, he had a singular idea about everything he did. He was unusually perceptive and to watch him working with musicians of similar disposition was really something. My most frequent memories are of Jacqueline du Pré. Barbirolli was able to engage the orchestra just as swiftly and he knew how to convey his ideas much more clearly and spontaneously than those who came to us with big words or with the intention of somehow trying to tame us. With Barbirolli there was never any tension or conducting affectations which suggested: "What on earth am I supposed to do with these players?" He would combine intensive sessions with humorous etudes which all the orchestras knew well, from Manchester and Vienna to Prague. He would occasionally swap places with a cellist and play one of the passages from the work we were doing. When he made his way towards me for the first time, I knew from older colleagues what he was about to do. I got up to hand him my cello and he saw that both of us measured not much more than 160 cm, and he gave me a broad, expressive smile. Then he narrowed his eyes at us with a look that said: "Now it's my turn!". He sat down, played and made comments about the way he envisaged the passage, turning round to the various instrumental sections accordingly. Then he jumped up suddenly and hurried back to his rostrum. If the orchestra greeted his demonstration with an appreciative "Bravo!", he wouldn't even turn round, he just gave a token wave of his hand as if to say: "Let's not overdo it, shall we?"

For the sake of maintaining a good atmosphere in the orchestra, he was willing at any time to jeopardise his own dignity and respect - but these he never lost. He had a generous heart and was one of those people who show kindness from an intrinsic need and not because it is seemly or advantageous to do so. We encountered this side of him during our very first session with him. One member of the orchestra, Alois Ibl, had to inject insulin regularly and he would leave the concert platform several times during rehearsal. Barbirolli noted this but didn't say anything and, at the next rehearsal, he asked Ibl what lured him away from rehearsal so often. When he was told the reason, he got down from his rostrum, made his way through the orchestra towards him and then dramatically stretched out his arms and gave Ibl an enormous hug, as if by way of an apology. The latter then immediately returned the embrace with the same fervour. The orchestra naturally greeted this dramatic scene with noisy gestures of approval. We also soon discovered how inventive Barbirolli was in his own gestures: he was very good with his hands and his speciality was attaining sudden pianissimo after a particularly loud passage: he would simply crouch beneath his music stand in one swift, surprisingly deft move. Without prior lengthy explanations, this stunt always had the desired effect straight away. After all, you can well imagine the effect on the players when, in the middle of a piece, the conductor just disappears. 

  

 

Sir John Barbirolli  at the Prague Spring festival in 1960↗ (photo from a newspaper report). The programme of this first concert with the Czech Philharmonic included Mahler's Symphony No.1 in D major and Concerto for Two Pianos, Op.63, by Jan Ladislav Dusík (Dussek) with František Maxián and Jan Panenka as soloists, recorded live for Supraphon (together with César Franck's Symphony in D minor, also re-released on CD). - At the Prague Spring festival in 1969↗ the Czech Philharmonic was conducted by Barbirolli in a programme featuring Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14, and Jean Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, with Christian Ferras as soloist. - Barbirolli conducted the Czech Philharmonic for the last time at the Montreux festival, not long before his death.

  

The same gesture, even if only during rehearsal, was used by Konstantin Ivanov. But he had his own, special way of doing it which others couldn't hope to emulate. He didn't disappear altogether, but squashed his little, upturned nose against the music stand and his piercing eyes gazed out from under his bushy head of ginger hair, as if they were trying to hypnotise us into attaining the desired pianissimo. Ivanov was a genteel, likeable fellow and represented the Moscow school of conducting. He didn't really need a baton - you could hardly see the incredibly short palochka poking out of his hand. He was stocky in build, his red hair glinted in the distance, in short, a Russian straight out of a fairy tale. He conducted the Pathétique like no-one before him, nor after him, in a wonderfully super-romantic interpretation. He was the embodiment of the idea that only truly emotional types can do Romanticism. I think that this is the reason that Matačić and Talich also gave breathtaking performances of the Pathétique. Those who denounced Romanticism did so largely because they were never given the chance and their attempts to "de-romanticise" the music, bring it down to earth and make it "more accessible" to the modern audience more or less came to nothing or, in the best case, were regarded as a strange laboratory experiment. Ivanov, at the same time, was able to work with the orchestra like very few in his field. He always had a well thought out conception. When he was doing the Pathétique, just before the full rehearsal, he received the news that his mother had died. Everyone in the orchestra must have sensed the change in him; he simply took us down with him. Each time he came here (and he visited Czechoslovakia about five times), he was received with great affection, which couldn't be said of all Russians at that time.

Around the year 1951 Ivanov came over with young Tatiana Nikolayeva↗. She played Rachmaninov's Concerto in C minor, which we also recorded, along with Glazunov's symphony, over a mere two days. Back then we didn't know that this modest slender lass with black hair tied in an enormous plait would later become famous as a performer of Bach↗. I, myself, attended her seminar; the hall was packed out.

 

    

copyright: Tatiana Nikolayeva.info website↗

 

 

Leopold Stokowski would probably have remained practically unknown to Czechoslovak audiences after the First World War if it hadn't been for his collaboration with Hollywood and his affair with Greta Garbo. Then there was the American recording which suddenly appeared here and was all the rage: Bach's Toccata and Fugue with Stokowski's own orchestration. I had heard this recording when I was eighteen and it had a huge impact on me, particularly when, instead of the organ, you heard this 120-strong orchestra. And whatever the critics had to say about Stokowski's Bach, whether it was Stravinsky or a contemporary reviewer, the first impression, especially among young listeners, will probably always be as intense as it was in my case.

Stokowski recorded his transcriptions with the Philharmonic in the Rudolfinum in September 1972 (coproduced by DECCA Records-Supraphon). For those in the audience at the time, it was a real treat since Stokowski was, at the age of ninety, one of the few living legends of their youth. And, unquestionably, he remained a major figure of classical music, a fact his great age couldn't change. The evening before the first rehearsal, however, the Philharmonic joiner, Mr Vondřička, had to "reinforce" the conductor's rostrum with a railing in case Stokowski started feeling faint. For the duration of the rehearsals and recording, below this safety rail sat his assistant, who always brought the maestro into the hall and led him out again, and he would ceremoniously lay out his score. Stokowski would sit down to conduct and all the spotlights would be focused on him. Fragile, slightly stooping, with soft downy white hair framing his face, a faraway look in his eyes, he had a contemplative expression about him, like God before the creation of the world. Unlike Talich, he kept his emotions hidden. Before we started work, the orchestra was a flurry of activity: musicians wrote in some bowings which they thought were missing in their parts. Stokowski noticed this and said: "No, no! Frei Bogen!" We were surprised at this and he went on to explain: "Everyone do it the way he wants! The more varied, the better!" The Philharmonic had never experienced this approach, with each string player bowing as he pleased. Nevertheless, despite his age, Stokowski knew how to convey his ideas as a conductor pretty well; it was only in the slow passages of Bach's motets that we could no longer follow his gestures; we had to rely on our own intuition. Apart from Bach, the concert programme also included Shostakovich and, as an encore, Scriabin - a short, very popular piece, again orchestrated by Stokowski. The people in the hall looked up at him as if they were in church. Perhaps also for this reason the applause wasn't as loud as we had expected. Stokowski was aware of this and, instead of leaving the podium, he turned to the audience and sang in his thin, old man's voice: "Scriabin?" And, turning back to face us, he gave the answer himself: "Scriabin." And after this encore, the audience finally rose and showed its appreciation with a lengthy applause.

 

 

Over here, Stokowski, like all the conductors and soloists from abroad, was looked after by the secretary, Mrs Šetlíková, daughter of the famous violinist Karel Hoffmann, first violin in the Czech Quartet. Mrs Šetlíková was an incredibly capable and sweet woman, and extremely competent as an organiser. She spoke several languages, she sorted out all the correspondence but, most importantly, she knew everything there was to know about our guest. She was familiar with his habits, wishes and problems. She could read his mind, she could resolve the insoluble, and all this a full 24 hours a day. And she left a powerful impression on everyone she met. She made an impact on Stokowski as well.

Eventually it was time to go home. Stokowski, together with his mountain of luggage, was picked up by our Philharmonic car and taken to the station, where Mrs Šetlíková had arranged to have one of those little electric trucks bring all those cases right up to the maestro's train carriage. But as soon as Stokowski realised what was going on, in a flash, he climbed up in his long Polish fur coat and Cossack Astrakhan hat right to the top of this baggage massif and wouldn't be persuaded otherwise: he was going to take a ride along with his suitcases. Having reached the age of ninety, it wasn't the safest thing to do but, in the end, he got his own way. And so, nodding at fellow-passengers as he rode by, he made his way triumphantly along the platform to the place where, with the aid of his assistant and Mrs Šetlíková, who had caught up with him on foot, he stepped down gracefully from his luggage mound. This legend about one of Stokowski's last daring exploits was subsequently retold in Mrs Šetlíková's inimitable way, keeping Philharmonic musicians and staff amused for years afterwards. 

When Sergiu Celibidache came to us for the first time, he was a little over the age of fifty and he was one of the most fascinating people I had ever met. We knew that he flitted between music, philosophy and mathematics, he derided traditional authority and that he was a restless individual. But, as a conductor, he was totally convincing and was able therefore to determine the number of rehearsals that he would require for a given concert without restricting himself in any way; otherwise, everyone else had to accept the orchestra's work schedule. His limit was seven rehearsals as opposed to the usual four. In return, the Philharmonic requested that he do at least two programmes on every visit to Prague. After Antonio Pedrotti, of the foreign conductors, it was chiefly he who was responsible for expanding the orchestra's repertoire. Thanks to him, the Philharmonic acquired some famous works, such as Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Brahms's Symphony No. 4. Celibidache's typical approach would be to focus conscientiously and intensely on all the pitfalls of a given work, and he quickly uncovered the slightest failings. His thoroughness also led him to pay great attention to detail: for the first time since Talich, we started tuning up well before the rehearsal began. We didn't just tune up using the customary A but began instead from the double basses and cellos, then the violas and so on, always in fifths, which had to be absolutely pure. Thus it took almost half an hour before the orchestra was ready. In short, precision mathematics. For Talich, tuning was as important as it was for Celibidache, but he began with a D major chord in the wind section; he would decide who would play the root of the chord, then thirds, fifths, octaves, then he would move up in semitones either to F major or even to A. Then all the other sections would tune according to the final chord in the wind.  

Celibidache, while he was an exact scientist who aimed for total precision, was certainly not a cold fish. On the contrary, we sometimes had him for an amiable eccentric. For instance, he didn't like recording. He wouldn't recognise microphone work, stating that it just wasn't the same, that the music was distorted, and the only music worth doing was live performance in concert. At first, he wouldn't even make recordings for the radio. The microphone was always positioned in such a way that it covered the entire orchestra, including the conductor's rostrum. And Celibidache had this irrepressible acoustic vice - when he conducted, he would sing in his distinctive temperamental way together with the orchestra whilst, at the same time, roaring fervently: "Pum! Pum! Pum!". Any microphone suspended nearby would have picked it up. Another of Celibidache's obsessions was dynamics - not when building up to forte but to pianissimo. He knew that one of the greatest resources of any orchestra was its ability to play loudly in passages where piano was stipulated. This is because it's more convenient for the players, it makes their lives easier. Celibidache spent a lot of time on dynamics during rehearsal. He worked in detail with every section, sometimes even with each player separately. Once he was rehearsing some passage in Brahms's Fourth with the double basses, but he was always dissatisfied; his face contorted, he would wave his arms about and howl: "That's too much!". The double basses tried with all their might but to no avail. In the end, concertmaster František Pošta came up with the idea that, during the full rehearsal, they would all play above the strings, so there would be absolutely no sound at all. Celibidache was ecstatic; he heard what he wanted to hear inside his head, and no-one outside it could disturb him. When it came to the concert, Celibidache naturally immediately won the audience over as an excellent, dexterous conductor with a southern temperament. When I spoke with Milan Munclinger afterwards, he said: "It was a great concert, the themes came out a dream, everything was precise to the last gramme. But when it came to the pianissimo theme, I couldn't hear a thing. How come?"

 

  

Celibidache with the Czech Philharmonic at the Prague Spring festival in 1967

  

Otto Klemperer was a conducting legend in the mould of Molinari, Nikisch, Walter and Furtwängler, he was a member of that famous old guard we greenhorns were really curious about. Our "oldies" knew him and said: "Just you wait, he's a real taskmaster!" They told us about his friendship with Mahler who, some time around the year 1910, recommended him as a conductor at the Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, and about Klemperer's celebrated interpretations of Janáček, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. During the Second World War, after emigrating to America, he became well known chiefly as a conductor of Beethoven and Mahler, a fact familiar in Czechoslovakia to everyone who secretly listened to Radio London.

After the Second World War he returned to Europe and became ensconced as head of the opera in Budapest. It was then, in 1949, that he was also invited to come and conduct us. He was glad to accept as he had happy memories of his time in Prague. Somehow he had forgotten exactly which date he was supposed to arrive and he turned up two days later than had been arranged. This naturally heightened general curiosity even more. Standing before us was a tall, well-built seventy-year-old. After a serious operation his face was twisted and he could only talk out of the corner of his mouth. It was also difficult for him to walk about, he would drag his feet along, but he walked without a stick. He had them take away the conductor's rostrum; with his height, he didn't really need it anyway. He conducted without a baton; Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 were on the programme. He was fantastic to work with. Our first rehearsal ended early, Klemperer said "Bravo!" and we all went home. We were thrilled with him but many of us thought: "For God's sake, the concert's tomorrow! When is he going to go over it in detail?" It turned out that we were aware of this, but not Klemperer. In the morning he arrived in the conductor's room and Míla Sádlo asked him what he was going to start with. The maestro answered, absent-mindedly: "Could you do something for me? Could you get me a ticket for the National Theatre for tonight? They're doing The Bartered Bride - I'd quite fancy seeing it." Somewhat troubled, Míla answered him, saying that he didn't think it was possible, because the Maestro was doing a concert with us that evening! Then Klemperer remembered his obligations but added immediately: "Don't worry, it's the last rehearsal but that doesn't matter." And so we began. We didn't play through it, we just tackled the places where certain "collisions" might occur. We worked at full pelt, with total concentration. We were still a bit anxious as to how the evening would go, but even the introduction was simply sublime. Klemperer swept onto the stage in his typical manner, and the audience (the majority his old Prague public) gave him a rapturous welcome. He gave a bow and then turned to us while simultaneously bringing us in - even as the thunderous applause was still going on. In spite of his illness his gestures were wonderful and wholly intelligible as he took us through the entire work to the last bars. We felt that, for us and for him, this had been much more than just a concert, and I think he, too, sensed that we were fully focused and committed. Then we left the concert platform and he remained there on his own; the audience surrounded the podium, no-one wanted to go home. Later that evening, he expressed the desire to see us again, even though it meant going down the steps to the changing rooms, which he could only do with the help of two of our colleagues. He shook hands with each of us and thanked us, without trying to hide his emotions. We had never experienced anything like this, neither before nor afterwards.

 

 

 

Klemperer came to Prague again the following season and the programme was brilliant: Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Bruckner's Symphony No. 7. This was probably the first time that Bruckner had appeared on the programme in Prague after the war and, for those of us performing him for the first time ourselves, it was like discovering a new world. And well it might: in Europe Klemperer had a reputation as a superb Bruckner conductor and the Philharmonic was now able to go the whole way with him, in particular the woodwind and brass. Again we rehearsed with great intensity and the atmosphere during rehearsal was unparalleled. Klemperer led us through the huge Bruckner score with the assurance of the Omniscient One, and without a hint of the insensitivity that sometimes plagues professional veterans. He was wholly immersed in his work, as if he, himself, were discovering the piece for the first time. On the concert platform it was totally quiet.

We hadn't had much evidence of Klemperer's "fierce" reputation, even though the older members of the orchestra had warned us about it, until a conflict in the orchestra emerged which, fortunately, didn't affect us directly. Wherever he went he was besieged by photographers, all wanting a piece of the pie. He told them that they could only take one picture at the start of the rehearsal and that was it. He banned photographers at the evening concert. Except that, after the first few bars of our Bach piece, a camera flashed right opposite him. He flinched, turned round and, quicker than we'd ever seen him move before, he darted off in the direction of the flash, fury in his eyes. The photographer's only good fortune was that he managed to get out of there in time and Klemperer couldn't get down the steps. So he went back to his place, calmly brought us in once more and we began again. The concert ended just as triumphantly as it had the previous year. I think it was one of the last he ever conducted. 

Franz Konwitschny, a native of Fulnek in Moravia, first came to us in 1952, while he was conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. He was a tubby chap, but despite his girth, he had an exceptionally graceful manner and playful character, and a talent for mimicry I had yet to come across. Perhaps, because of this, he chose for the close of the concert Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, albeit a typical, but somewhat tricky number to end with, which few are able to pull off well. Konwitschny constructed the piece to perfection, he literally danced his way through it and took us with him with tremendous skill as well. He didn't simply interpret the work verbally, but also physically, using his entire corpulent body. When Till Eulenspiegels reached its climax, our clarinetist Zdeněk Kureš played the solo so evocatively that it sent shivers down our spine. Then came the general pause, which Konwitschny summed up succinctly: It's like having a nightmare, then you wake up and say to yourself, "Thank God it was only a dream". And that's when the soothing Epilogue begins. We later recorded Eulenspiegels with Konwitschny and it became a regular fixture in our repertoire. 

Our generation had the good fortune not only to meet superb conductors, but also composers. Darius Milhaud visited Prague back in 1933 at the invitation of the Czech section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). When he came to us again over thirty years later, he was already quite ill. He was a stocky, incredibly good-natured man, he used crutches when he walked and conducted sitting down. At the Prague Spring festival he presented his Symphony No. 10 and Music for Prague, which he wrote especially for this occasion. The second half was conducted by Zdeněk Mácal who, after winning the conducting competition in Besançon, was performing before Prague audiences for the first time.

 

 

 The first performance of Milhaud's Music for Prague in 1966

 

Arthur Honegger conducted his oratorio Le Roi David with us in January 1949; the orchestra was joined by soloists from the National Theatre and the Czech Choir. We also recorded the work for Supraphon. The choir sat in the stalls where the audience usually sits, and the orchestra was arranged on a specially extended podium, in such a way that the sounds coming from both vast ensembles would complement each other to the best advantage. Thus, Honegger at times had to conduct "panoramically", but he managed perfectly well. He was very humble, matter-of-fact, an agreeable person, more of a professor type, tall and robust, he had thick glasses with dark frames, and dark hair with hardly any grey at all. When he worked, he became totally absorbed in what he was doing. Honegger returned to Czechoslovakia again in May of that year, naturally for the Prague Spring. On this occasion he conducted the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, so we were able to enjoy the programme as listeners this time around. In addition to his Symphony No. 4 and Judith, we were also treated to Concertino for Piano, whose solo was performed by his wife Andrée Vaurabourg, professor of counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire. On and off the concert platform, it was evident that the Honeggers enjoyed a serene and harmonious relationship, without the kind of conflict or friction which sometimes characterises marriages between professional musicians. We encountered Honegger's music many times after that; I particularly remember Charles Munch, a bohemian with a big heart, and one of the most inspirational conductors I have ever known.

 

  

Arthur Honegger and Charles Munch  in Prague (photos taken from the programme brochures)

Charles Munch conducts Honegger's Symphonie Liturgique (1st movement Dies Irae).  A rehearsal with the Czech Philharmonic

 

Aaron Copland also conducted his works with the Philharmonic; I had seen his friend Leonard Bernstein in action twenty-five years earlier while I was still at the Conservatoire when he came over to conduct the European premiere of Copland's Symphony No. 3 in Prague in May 1947.

 

        

 

I have lovely memories of the young Dmitri Shostakovich. He often came to Prague and, after one particular concert, Talich's lifelong friend, Evgeny Mravinsky, took him by the hand and led him onto the podium. The atmosphere was just as remarkable as it had been ten years earlier, when Mravinsky and his wife came to support Talich at a concert given by the Czech Chamber Orchestra at Bertramka.

 

    

On the left: Dmitri Shostakovich and Evgeny Mravinsky, concert with the Czech Philharmonic in the Rudolfinum - On the right: Václav Talich and Evgeny Mravinsky

 

It also happened that foreign conductors would present Prague audiences with the works of Czech composers - which is what Erich Kleiber once did when he performed South Bohemian Suite by his teacher Vítězslav Novák, repeating the concert at the Prague Spring↗ eighteen years later to critical acclaim. I especially treasure my time spent with him; the orchestra and public loved him. He worked with incredible enthusiasm. None of us imagined that, by then, he only had one year to live.

 

 

 

 

Erich Kleiber in Prague: as a pianist accompanying the tenor Alfred Piccaver in 1912 and as a conductor at the Prague Spring festival in 1949↗

 

Paul Kletzki first visited Prague back in 1947 and he returned about fifteen years later to record Beethoven's complete symphonies with us↗. He was known for his condemnation of Karajan's recording of the work, which came out at roughly the same time, and he frequently aired his views in the recording studio, which somewhat complicated his work with the orchestra. Like Klemperer or Celibidache, his reputation as a conductor-composer preceded him; our "oldies" mentioned his contacts with Furtwängler and other legends and he was, by that time, a recognised authority on Beethoven, so recording this colossal Beethoven cycle with Kletzki was a great honour for the Philharmonic. Moreover, we sensed that it was particularly important for him that this recording was a success. As if by way of confirmation, despite various unfavourable circumstances, he finally managed to complete the cycle after a period of several years.

There's something else that I remember in connection with Kletzki. We were doing Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht with him - he was to conduct the piece at the Prague Spring festival together with Beethoven's Ninth and he relied upon the festival secretary Dr Vilém Pospíšil, who told him that it was one of the Philharmonic's repertoire works. By this, Dr Pospíšil naturally meant during Talich's era, but he had forgotten that almost all the seasoned players from that time had since died. And so the work was familiar only to those who had played it in the sextet. We took the parts home and everything else had to go by the wayside - we were propelled by the unpleasant realisation that, under normal circumstances, there would probably have been more than four rehearsals available for the Schoenberg. But Verklärte Nacht under Kletzki was, of course, a true accomplishment and I think that each one of us who'd been lucky enough to have taken part was only too glad to forgive him for the initial pressure we were under. Kletzki, in fact, wouldn't allow anyone to interfere with what he was doing, he was full of energy and he clearly considered diplomacy a waste of time. He fired commands at us one after the other, in several languages - in whichever suited him best at any given moment - and he conducted vigorously, with ease, and with a fine grasp of the task at hand. Unquestionably, he was one of the most fascinating people I had come across: diminutive in stature, he was an astute man in his sixties, with a comedian's talent which he generally used for the purposes of achieving his goals resolutely and quickly. His bald head, sturdy neck and striking features only emphasised this energy. His moods would change abruptly; one minute he'd be churlish, then passionate, and then moved to tears.

 

 

Kletzki's concert with André Navarra and the Czech Philharmonic in 1965 (Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde)

 

Perhaps the best loved foreign conductor who came to work with us during my early days with the Philharmonic was Antonio Pedrotti. The orchestra's standard of performance greatly improved during his tenure, he expanded its repertoire and the twenty years or more that he was with us have become an unforgettable chapter in the history of the Philharmonic. A series of recordings still testify to this fact, but unfortunately they're quite hard to come by these days.

Pedrotti was one of the first conductors to come to us across the Iron Curtain after 1948 and we were naturally filled with a strong sense of curiosity and anticipation. From Mrs Šetlíková, who mediated our first contact with him, we discovered that he came from an extended musical family from northern Italy, that he had studied literature in Rome and was a favourite composition pupil of Ottorino Respighi, with whom he had graduated from the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in 1924. Respighi's colleague Bernardino Molinari, who had often performed in Prague during the 1920s, took Pedrotti on as his assistant with the celebrated "Augusteo Orchestra" (later the Orchestra dell' Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia). Both teachers had influenced Pedrotti's musical leanings - Molinari with his interest in the Impressionists and pre-Classical music, Respighi through his knowledge of the Russian musical environment (having studied under Rimsky-Korsakov) and his editions of the early Italian masters. Equally important for Pedrotti's career was his friendship with pianist Benedetti Michelangeli. I remember one of Milan Munclinger's prized possessions - a wartime recording of Schumann's Concerto in A minor with 22-year-old Michelangeli as soloist and Pedrotti heading Milan's La Scala orchestra.

When Pedrotti arrived for his first rehearsal with us in March 1950, we were presented with a well-built man of about fifty, although his hair probably hadn't started to go grey by that stage, he was dressed in corduroy trousers and a blue sweater, quite the sporting type. The impression he gave was more that of a loner; he was quiet and down-to-earth, but, as a musician, he knew exactly what he wanted and he was determined to carry things through to perfection. If something didn't go well, he would make these awful grimaces while he was conducting. But when he indicated for us to stop playing, he would comment on the mistakes without raising his voice and without any hint of sarcasm. He had a complete picture of the score and was able to convey his views just as suggestively as Václav Talich. He conducted without a baton, like Klemperer or Stokowski, and he did it generally from memory, with clarity and conviction. The expression on his face while he was conducting was something you couldn't forget: he was perfectly focused and totally immersed in his inner world. He behaved entirely naturally, both during rehearsal and concert, there was no posing or ostentation. I think that his only true ambition was to achieve a flawless result; it wasn't fame he was after.

 

Pedrotti after a concert with the Czech Philharmonic in the Rudolfinum's Dvořák Hall

 

At our first concert we played the overture to Smetana's The Bartered Bride, Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Verdi's Sicilian Vespers. The most interesting was the Bartered Bride. Until that point we had experienced it more as a kind of "mish-mash" effect - from the first bars of the second violins right through to the double basses' entry; it was simply a stampede at breakneck speed. Pedrotti rehearsed the exposition part by part, desk by desk, and this he did every day right up to the break. It certainly wasn't the tempo where the audience sees the conductor's baton feverishly thrashing out the beats, and they don't notice what the orchestra is playing, because it's all one big amorphous melange of sound. Pedrotti seized on the rhythm and articulation, and, as soon as the music started to escalate into an indecipherable jumble of notes, he'd say: "No!". He'd hold his hands behind his back, walk about the rostrum, lean towards us a little and gaze at us with piercing eyes. And we had to play it again, allowing every note to be heard, like beads pouring into a bowl. He then gradually built up the dynamics as no-one before him, the culmination of perfection.

We did the concert and the spellbound Rudolfinum fell completely silent after the first few bars - we felt the atmosphere so keenly that I remember it to this day. And then came the tumultuous applause which never seemed to end. During that post-war period, no foreign conductor had become such an overnight sensation the way Pedrotti had. The very next day they started discussing his next season with us. It was decided that he would come for a minimum of two weeks, during which time he would put together two new programmes. Then, in 1953, he appeared with the Czech Philharmonic for the first time at the Prague Spring festival as well, giving another critically acclaimed performance. This particular concert gave rise to the first ever live broadcast of symphonic music from the newly established Czechoslovak Television studios.

 

 

The close contact we had with Pedrotti lasted almost until his death, a period of twenty years. During this time Pedrotti worked with the Philharmonic on more than forty occasions - i.e. more frequently than any other foreign guest conductor. The same applies to the number of gramophone recordings, many of which, in my view, deserve a place in Supraphon's Gold Collection. The concerts we did together abroad were also highly successful. One English critic wrote: "Pedrotti conducted one of the most flawless renditions of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 I have ever heard - a wonderful performance from the Czech Philharmonic ..." (Music and Musicians, July 1956, p. 16).

Pedrotti enjoyed choosing difficult works, many of which were unknown to the Philharmonic and Czech audiences at that time. He introduced us to the early Italian masters, we recorded for the first time works by Palestrina, Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi, Bonporti and Frescobaldi. He loved Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and also Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartók. I'll never forget our first performance of Verdi's Requiem, Mother Goose, Pavane for a Dead Princess, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Daphnis et Chloé, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, The Firebird, Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer, Respighi's Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. And, of course, Pedrotti's interpretation of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition with Ravel's orchestration. We were one of the first orchestras to record this suite, shortly after the rights to its performance were waived following Koussevitzky's death, and Pedrotti's performance will always stay with me as something quite unique. His flawless preparation certainly played an important role here, perhaps extending back to his student days (thanks to the Respighi - Korsakov connection), and undoubtedly also his personal contact with Luigi Dallapiccola, his familiarity with the first critical edition of Pictures at an Exhibition, and the fact that the Ravel orchestrations had always greatly inspired him. 

Pedrotti was hugely respected and well liked, even though, under him, we had to work much harder than most. There were times when he spoke to us using the familiar form Ty - such as during our famous football match against the violin-makers from Luby which Pedrotti commenced with a ceremonial kick-off. Otherwise everyone addressed him as Maestro, not for the sake of social convention, but because, to us, he really was a true Maestro. With his intensive way of working, and his wonderful, spontaneous yet cultivated musicianship, it was like returning to the Talich era. But I think Pedrotti had the good fortune as well that the orchestra boasted fine instrumentalists, capable of fulfilling his ideas and vision. We had flautist Géza Novák, clarinetist Karel Dlouhý and bassoonist Karel Bidlo in the woodwind; in the brass there was Talich's trumpet player Rudolf Lisý, in particular, whom Pedrotti even gave a photograph with a message of thanks as a farewell gesture. The photo showed the Alps above Pedrotti's native city of Trento - normally fairly taciturn, Pedrotti loved talking about the place and about the resident choir there, Coro SAT, with whom he had worked for a large part of his life. Perhaps it was Coro SAT's guest appearance in Prague in the late 1940s that led to Pedrotti's collaboration with Prague orchestras.

When Karel Ančerl left for Toronto in 1969, we were scheduled to travel on a ten-day tour of Switzerland with several demanding programmes. Rafael Kubelík had turned down the offer to conduct the Czech Philharmonic on this occasion, but not Pedrotti. He was simply "our" conductor, we all felt it, as did he. With us he experienced both good times and bad, but we got so much more out of those good times, thanks to him. I'm sure no-one from my generation will forget the letters he wrote to Mrs Šetlíková in the last years of his life. He always added the line: "And say hello to the Philharmonic, I'm thinking of them." 

During the 1950s Wolfgang Sawallisch was already one of the world's most sought-after conductors and, among his German colleagues, he was often considered a successor to Karajan, whom he replaced in 1960 as head of the Vienna Symphony. We knew that he had been Markevitch's assistant in Salzburg and the youngest conductor to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. His reputation was gradually sealed over the years through his work at the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals, his excellent recordings for EMI and other prestigious recording companies, along with his collaboration with world-class orchestras in Europe and overseas. He had become celebrated as a conductor of major vocal works, and an authority on Richard Strauss, Bruckner, Brahms, Schubert, Wagner, Mozart, Dvořák...

He came to us for the first time to conduct at the Prague Spring festival in 1958↗ and subsequently returned on many occasions. We had some of our happiest times working with him and I think that, from the very beginning, the affection we felt towards him was mutual. Every time he was invited, he came, even though part of his fee was paid in crowns (as it was for Pedrotti and others). He fitted in so well with the Philharmonic that it was like being part of a family. Discussions about the repertoire never involved any favouritism or interests from above; it was just a matter between him, us and Supraphon, which ensured a high-quality programme. It was due to him that we were involved in recordings of Dvořák's oratorios and cantatas, Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2 "Lobgesang", and Orff's Carmina burana...

 

  

A concert with Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1967 (the programme included Dvořák's overture Othello, Brahms's Double Concerto for violin and cello and Beethoven's Mass in C major) 

 

Whenever he arrived to conduct us, Mozart would always appear on the programme. Sawallisch loved Classical works and he did them superbly. We, on the other hand, hardly ever performed them with our own conductors and, during the annual meetings to discuss the forthcoming repertoire, we would struggle in vain against the sacrosanct idea that "great" music only began with Romanticism. Thanks to Sawallisch, we string players were given the opportunity to play some wonderful works, and the Classical "deficit" began to lessen with every passing year.

The other mainstay of Sawallisch's programmes was Czech music. He performed major vocal-instrumental works, such as Dvořák's Stabat mater, Requiem, The Spectre's Bride, St Ludmila, and Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. Where all sorts of bad habits had accrued over the years, even though the orchestra no longer noticed, he would get rid of them. It's only with a conductor like Sawallisch that a player suddenly realises all over again what is actually written in the score. It was also Sawallisch who destroyed the ingrained myth that a foreigner "can't possibly understand Czech music the way a home-grown conductor can".

What also attracted Sawallisch to Prague was our outstanding Czech Choir (Český pěvecký sbor) - back then, professional European choirs of this standard were in very short supply. Sawallisch was so impressed by the choir that he often invited them to perform with him abroad as well; one of the first performances was, I think, Nabucco in La Scala. Sawallisch was himself a professional singer, a wonderful tenor with an incredible range. He would often do a vocal demonstration during rehearsal - not only for the orchestra, but also for the soloists. When other conductors did this, it would sometimes cause a bit of muffled tension, or even rancour; but not in his case. It happened on many occasions that the soloists wanted his opinion and together they went through certain passages, trying it different ways; it always worked and the atmosphere was fantastic. Sawallisch was also proficient in chamber music and a fine accompanist on the piano. I remember his concert with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a huge success; there are only a few who are able spontaneously to combine classical and modern so flawlessly and with such sincerity. He was simply brilliantly talented: where music was concerned, he was blessed in whatever he did. 

What was appealing about him was the fact that he didn't fit the traditional mould of artistic genius: he didn't have the sharply honed features of the subtle thinker, or the severe monumental presence of the tempestuous bohemian. He simply radiated informality and musicality and won over every one of us immediately. He was superb during rehearsal and was extremely clear in his gestures - as he took us through the music, we could just feel the piece "breathing". You don't experience that very often. And we always marvelled at the way he evidently enjoyed his work as well; he completely immersed himself in what he was doing.

 

Conductors - Part 2

Czech Philharmonic and the people around it 

Czech Philharmonic in period documents

Václav Talich - Czech Chamber Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

 


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