Česky English

Conductors and a few more recollections besides

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


Part  2


Herbert von Karajan

When Herbert von Karajan died in Salzburg on 16 July 1989, an article in Concert Life mentioned the fact that he had never conducted the Czech Philharmonic. This isn't entirely true; I'd even say that our two encounters with Karajan tied in with interesting circumstances which no-one who was around at the time will forget in a hurry.

We first came across Karajan in Vienna in 1956 where we were playing the New World Symphony at the Wiener Festwochen. When we went on for the second half of the concert, the head of the festival appeared in his box. The entire audience turned their heads to look at him, just like they do during a tennis match, and Karel Ančerl on the conductor's rostrum had to wait quite a while before the Maestro had finished greeting all the local celebrities in his midst. When the New World Symphony was over, there was a burst of applause which was topped off by Karajan who, after Ančerl had come back out to take his bow for about the fourth time, stood up and gave us a standing ovation. After that he came to hear us regularly, whenever we performed in Vienna, despite the uneasy political climate of a world divided by the Iron Curtain and a good deal of prejudice which has very little to do with music but often influences its fate.

In 1970 we found out that we were going to perform with Karajan at the Salzburg festival the following August. Although none of us let it show, we were obviously a bit jittery and nervous - apart from the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, only a few world orchestras were given an opportunity like this and it was generally known that Karajan was very particular about whom he conducted. The old hands in the Berlin Philharmonic told us that "Herbie" wasn't the rod of iron everyone made him out to be, but we took that information with a pinch of salt: his firm hand was obvious the very first time we heard them play - they had such precision of style and perfect execution. Apart from that, we saw their work schedule in the Philharmonic Club during a visit to Berlin; it was extremely gruelling in the light of what we were used to, there was just no comparison. They were recording a series of Brahms symphonies at the time - first of all they performed the work on tour in Germany, then at a concert in Berlin and, immediately afterwards, at night, they would record it. The Berliners claimed that this was the most expedient time for everyone, although they had to work flat out.

Even though we played in Salzburg many times, we had only experienced Karajan as "tourists". Round the back entrance to the Great Festival Hall enormous crowds gathered whenever the maestro was to appear: the gate opened and a car with black-tinted windows glided in. That was enough to send everyone off into a state of euphoria - he was such a legend in the city. But during our time with him, however, we realised that his personality cult was fostered for the most part by the people around him; he certainly wasn't the type to get worked up if someone opened a door clumsily or coughed during rehearsal. The whole time we were working with him he seemed perfectly natural, patient and focused, and we didn't find an ounce of arrogance in him. But his arrival on the concert platform was precisely the ceremony described by the press. About a quarter of an hour before the rehearsal was due to start, Karajan's secretary gave us precise instructions as to what this ceremony would entail, and then he stressed, ten minutes before the maestro's arrival, that there had to be absolute silence. We didn't take this "absolute Ruhe" to be absolute, and so, here and there, you could hear someone touching his strings or uttering a whispered remark to his neighbour. The maestro still hadn't arrived. In the end, our orchestral secretary had to say something to ensure total silence: "I'm sorry gentlemen, but we have to hold out for these ten minutes." These words had their effect. But it was still quite some time before Karajan's steps could be heard coming towards us from the depths of the backstage area. He wasn't in any hurry, and it took him an exceedingly long time to reach the podium, as if the conductor's room were located somewhere at the other end of the huge Festspielhaus. The stage was plunged into darkness and a single spotlight suddenly and dramatically bathed the Maestro in a pool of light at just the right moment to give us a chance to pull ourselves together and start applauding. He stepped up onto the rostrum, closed his eyes, stretched out his arms, and we began. His gestures were pure sorcery and, unlike the Vienna Philharmonic who were used to this, we occasionally found them quite hard to decipher. But he wasn't one of those temperamental gymnasts "on a spring" the audience love to watch on the conductor's rostrum. His face was a wall of concentration, he was very serene, almost meditative. His right hand holding a short baton was often almost immobile, while he motioned with his incredibly flexible left hand, moving gently and freely from the wrist down. His renowned little finger would trace an almost imperceptible circle to bring the orchestra down to pianissimo, where we would stay until a new flash of the baton would break the magic.

There was something special about our Salzburg concert↗ which we soon realised would be closely monitored: On this occasion Karajan was also appearing as one of the soloists in Bach's Concerto for Four Harpsichords, BWV 1065  and was conducting from the piano. At rehearsal, however, we had mostly been doing the New World Symphony, and we probably only played through the Bach twice. Even so, the response to the performance was remarkable. The public looked up to their Maestro and the time-tested New World Symphony was a success. Karajan conducted theatrically and precisely, his eyes closed this time right to the end, while his body swayed about dangerously, which got us seriously worried at times. After the concert he was all smiles, he thanked us and his proverbial reserve seemed to have vanished. We sensed that, perhaps because of the Bach, this particular evening had meant more to him than the other festival programmes.

Karajan came also to conduct at the Prague Spring festival↗, with the Vienna Philharmonic, and with the Berliners. As always he never missed an opportunity and flew over in his own plane, naturally piloting it himself. His masterful landing at Kbely airfield had people talking all over Prague afterwards.


Our colleague Karel Vik, who was deployed during the war in the Vienna Radio Orchestra, occasionally used to tell us about Strauss's Salome under conductor Lovro von Matačić. When we started touring in Germany during the 1950s we would often see Matačić's name on posters; he was one of the world's most famous conductors by then, renowned particularly as an opera conductor, and he recorded for EMI and Eurodisc as well. He played an important role in shaping post-war music in his country and he also worked in Dresden (as successor to Konwitschny), Berlin, Milan (La Scala), Rome, London, Bayreuth, and at the Vienna Opera. He came to us in 1958 and when he stood before us on the conductor's rostrum, we had the impression that he didn't really need it at all. It was like having the Golem standing there. When we first set eyes on him, he appeared coarse, almost brutal, but we soon came to know quite a different person in him. The same attributes typically applied for Matačić as for Talich: he had detailed knowledge of the score, great musical sensibility, a singular imagination, and a special charisma which worked its charm on the orchestra. It wasn't an easy task working with him, but the final impression was fascinating. He rehearsed very conscientiously; the orchestra understood his obsession and kept in line with him: The kind of laziness which encourages a player to increase from piano to mezzoforte by the fourth bar so that, when the music is supposed to reach its climax, there just isn't any climax at all, well, all that disappeared with Matačić. He also managed to cultivate the same relationship with the orchestra and public as Pedrotti and Sawallisch had done, and he loved coming back to Prague. He recorded with us as well (chiefly Tchaikovsky↗ and Bruckner) and, in my opinion, his recordings remain some of the best the Philharmonic has ever recorded. He had a fine sense for the Viennese Classics, he loved the Romantics, and also modern composers, such as Prokofiev or Shostakovich; and he had a supreme understanding of Berlioz. If I remember correctly, he was the first foreign conductor to be entrusted with Smetana's Má vlast at the opening concert of the Prague Spring.

Nevertheless, whenever we met up with the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics, they spoke about Matačić essentially in connection with Bruckner. So, naturally, we were extremely curious. When the moment finally came, it was clear after the first few bars that this was going to be something quite extraordinary; it was as if we were being introduced to Bruckner all over again. To gradually construct a long Bruckner movement in such a way that it holds the audience the entire time isn't easy by any means; it always depends to what extent the conductor is able to build up those famous Bruckner climaxes. And Matačić managed to do this in a way we had never experienced before, nor afterwards. He had a fascinating command of the dynamics, in particular, and he also had the physical condition required: He began from a deathly stillness, his gestures and gaze completely rigid, and, from this "paralysis", his mighty form began to set itself in motion, bar by bar, until it was in a complete trance. His eyes opened wide and his voice thundered into the fortissimo of the orchestra. A moment later everything gradually ebbed away, as if the waters had closed over a subsiding mountain. And so we learned for the first time that Bruckner wasn't anything like the "organ music" it was purported to be in music publications and articles over here. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was full of praise for Matačić's old-fashioned chivalry and elegance; to this day they still write about his "Austro-Hungarian" lifestyle. My father, who grew up during the Austro-Hungarian empire, would have probably called it the "Viennese style from the end of the monarchy", as described by Zweig in his autobiography The World of Yesterday. In short, a true pupil of Oskar Nedbal.

We, too, soon discovered that he was a veritable artist of life. He was able to live every delightful moment to the full. He started off his morning with a strong cup of coffee and a glass of something more robust in the Philharmonic canteen. He greeted and smiled at everyone in there, and knew most of us by name. The rehearsals were no less intensive; on the contrary.

In his free time Matačić would go to the pub with members of the Philharmonic and various admirers, young musicians themselves; the setting was usually the U Parlamentu or U Svitáků pub, or the Malá Strana wine bar. Milan Munclinger was a particular favourite of his - although he wasn't one for late nights, he could stay up for hours talking to him, sometimes until morning. They might discuss new works, such as The Story of Flutes by Munclinger's friend Oldřich Korte (Matačić later recorded it with the Philharmonic some time at the end of the 1960s [ed. note 1968]). The main topic was, of course, opera, which had been in Munclinger's blood from an early age - and well it might, given that his mother was an actress and his father an opera director and baritone engaged at one time by the Vienna State Opera no less. And during these discussions Matačić would hum a tune, then Munclinger would counter with a different aria, they would sing together, pull funny faces as they did so, and drink to other good things in life as well.

Munclinger also used to attend our Philharmonic rehearsals and, if he happened to be absent, Matačić would lean towards me and whisper raucously: "What's Milan up to? Say hi to him from me!". And then I would have to bring him up to date with what Milan had in mind for his Ars rediviva ensemble.



Matačić during a rehearsal with the Czech Philharmonic


The legendary Igor Markevitch was also glad to get the chance to come back to conduct us. The memories of our concerts and recordings with him (1962 Cherubini's Requiem, 1965 Gounod's Missa solemnis) will, I think, always be cherished by all the Philharmonic members from my generation.

He came to Prague for the first time in 1959; at that time he was Principal Conductor of the Paris-based Orchestre Lamoureux, with whom he had done a series of excellent recordings. The "old guys" in the orchestra informed us that his wife was the daughter of the famous Nijinsky, as a composer he had greatly impressed Diaghilev, and Béla Bartók described him as the most striking personality in contemporary music. Munclinger naturally spoke about Markevitch's quarter-tone period and his Icarus (L'envol d'Icare) and, above all, about his orchestral arrangement of Bach's Musical Offering, a copy of which he had managed to unearth abroad somewhere. He also knew that Markevitch was immensely knowledgeable about literature, from Milton to Cocteau, and that he wrote the texts for some of his vocal-instrumental works himself. Then we found out from Karel Ančerl that Markevitch had studied with Scherchen, that he had given his debut with the Concertgebouw orchestra at the age of eighteen, and had also lately made some unique recordings for DGG with the Berlin Philharmonic, which we ought to have a listen to (Mozart, Schubert, Wagner).

Markevitch had an enormous repertoire; he was skilled in opera, but also Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Berlioz, Debussy and Kodály. At the Prague Spring festival in 1959, as a world famous performer of modern music, he was entrusted with the first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. And he worked wonders with us, even though we only had three days available for rehearsal and our first impression was that we'd need several times that amount for a work of this calibre. Usually it was the case that, at the first rehearsal, the conductor would just play through the work. But Markevitch made the most of the time we had, from the first to the last second; he knew exactly what and how we were going to rehearse. He singled out the critical passages and carried us through them with such familiarity that, by the end, we were fully aware of all the pitfalls in the work and even managed to get through its notoriously difficult ending without any problems. At each subsequent rehearsal we really trained hard at it. It was a huge grind for us but, thanks to Markevitch, there was absolutely no sign of any nervousness or tension.

He seemed to us a very suggestive sort of person. He was even thinner than Karel Ančerl, more of an introvert really, and he was always highly focused. He spoke in a half-whisper and he always had a slight cough. His virtuosic hands indicated precisely what was required of us, there was no theatricality or unnecessary ostentation; his gestures were masterful. It was more as if he were hypnotising the players or the section he was working with at any given moment: He turned his huge dark eyes on them, thus gaining their attention much more swiftly than conductors who shout all the time. He conducted from memory, as if listening to the music from within.

The concert was amazing. Towards the end, where the rhythm and dynamics escalate to barbaric levels, Markevitch goaded his orchestra to the peak of collective madness. The auditorium was similarly transfixed - as if everyone had been turned to stone for a moment. And then the audience erupted; the Rudolfinum broke into frenzied applause which went on and on. Orchestral musicians don't come across absolute interpretations of classical works very often and we were very fortunate to be part of it. But Markevitch, too, had obviously given it all he had; we had never seen him like this. He turned round slowly and gave an imperceptible smile. No bows and no affectation.

Soon afterwards, Karel Ančerl incorporated The Rite of Spring into our tour programme and also recorded it for Supraphon in 1963.



In 1953 Nikolai Anosov came over to Prague to conduct us. He was a very fine conductor of the old school, like Talich or Klemperer, and he was also a kind, humble person; we had fond memories of him.

A few years later we had our first visit from his son, Gennady Rozhdestvensky. He arrived to conduct at the Prague Spring in 1962 and immediately won the hearts of both the orchestra and the public. Through him we discovered Shostakovich (he chose Symphony No. 12) and particularly Prokofiev's Scythian Suite; I'll never forget the impression it made on me. Back then, Rozhdestvensky was conductor of the Grand (All-Union) Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra but, thanks to live radio broadcasts, we were chiefly familiar with his work from Moscow's Bolshoi theatre. He also made guest appearances abroad and I think it was in 1962 that he triumphed at the Edinburgh Festival with the premiere of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 - until that point the work was known only to Russian audiences. He had a huge repertoire but we knew that he was a specialist in modern music and, by the age of thirty-one, he already had an incredible number of outstanding premieres to his name.

We met Rozhdestvensky for the second time in 1970; the year before he had been honoured by the French Charles Cros Academy for his performance of the collected Prokofiev symphonies. It was once again a wonderful experience working with him; to us, he was this petit, short-sighted genius with Prokofiev's high forehead and untraditional approach. As always, he conducted without standing on a platform. On the other hand, we had to make room for him on the podium because he would dart about amongst the players as he was conducting. If there was some important solo coming up, he would make his way towards the soloist, as if he wanted to catch every detail of what was to come. I don't think anyone minded, quite the opposite, in fact. We also liked him as a person, even though his reception at the beginning was a bit on the cold side, given Czech-Russian relations at the time, and there may have been a bit of head-tapping here and there. But the working atmosphere was almost fanatical, in a positive sense - there was no idling, the rehearsals went at a cracking pace from beginning to end. Rozhdestvensky was a champion at what he did and he had a phenomenal memory. He did Bartók's three-quarter-hour Miraculous Mandarin with us from memory, among other things, which, at least according to the old timers, the Philharmonic had never performed before. And the way the rehearsals and concert had gone was almost identical to Markevitch's Rite of Spring. Each part of Mandarin, even the shortest passage, was simply brilliant, honed to bring out maximum contrast. Before Rozhdestvensky, I had never come across anyone with such a fine sense of modern ballet music, full of allusive abbreviation, unexpected contrasts and grotesque hyperbole. This does, of course, require someone with a sharp mind, a subtle imagination and talent for comedy, which was precisely what he was. Rozhdestvensky said everything in his movements, which were abstemious and clear-cut; the hands and eyes were everything. To end a phrase he simply made a circle with his index finger, for a pianissimo he moved his fingers softly, like when a child is feeding crumbs to the birds and, before a forte, he stretched out his arms, drawing himself up onto his toes, while his face indicated to us what kind of character this forte was to assume. There aren't many conductors with this kind of technical virtuosity, and his was moreover underlined with a spontaneous, pantomimic talent and sense of humour, which he was also able to direct at himself. The orchestra enjoyed themselves supremely and they understood perfectly - a different interpretation simply wasn't possible. When Rozhdestvensky was making music, his face radiated a sense of wellbeing and happiness. And it was wonderfully infectious: we followed him and cast ourselves into this deep stream, conscious of the fact that he would lead us through it with absolute certainty. It was a great adventure and a great inspiration. Once you've experienced something like this, everything else is measured by it, even if you aren't aware of it.




After Mandarin, the usual conductor's formula "strictly in tempo" no longer held any weight with us - Rozhdestvensky completely deconstructed this generalised rule. And suddenly we found that the kind of music which had long been condemned over here, music which seemed to have had everyone flummoxed, now evoked spontaneous fervour. That evening, in the eyes of the orchestra and the public, Rozhdestvensky had made this happen, he had triumphed across the board. And he did the same many times after that. I'll never forget his Petrushka, Firebird, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and also Strauss or Beethoven. Whatever he did made immediate sense. He was thoroughly convincing at all times - and he was simply always himself.


The Czech Philharmonic had to face financial insecurity from the very beginning. It was common for the orchestral players to seek other opportunities to earn a living, and feisty amateurs would stand in for them, but not even they lasted very long. If the orchestra's administration didn't get some funding together for the new season, the orchestra would break up for the summer hoping that some work might turn up by September. They managed to keep their heads above water by appearing in benefit concerts, touring Czech spa resorts and performing summer promenade concerts. Václav Talich had to deal with this situation year after year as well, as his confidant, our legendary custodian Mr Vilím, and the old-timers in the orchestra would tell us. It's all the more remarkable, then, that he never backed down from his challenging vision of what he had in store for the orchestra, not even for a second, and, through years of unflagging meticulous work, he transformed the Philharmonic into an orchestra capable of meeting the most demanding of tasks. He brought a series of superlative players to the orchestra, such as Karel Bidlo and Rudolf Lisý, and he recognised and supported the conducting talents of former Philharmonic double bassist Karel Šejna.


Rafael Kubelík↗ took over from Talich as head of the Czech Philharmonic during the thorny Protectorate and war years; certain Philharmonic members, such as concertmaster Egon Ledeč, oboist Josef Děda or violist Zdeněk Němec, did not live to see the end of it. It is true that Kubelík didn't influence the development of the orchestra in as fundamental a way as his predecessor, but one has to remember that he headed the orchestra for a relatively short period of time, when the war prevented contact with musicians outside the country and hindered the expansion of the repertoire. After the war, he set to work with confidence: he revived Talich's idea to secure the Philharmonic financially by nationalising it and took measures to ensure that this happened. He also set out plans for the reconstruction of the Dvořák Hall in the Rudolfinum so that it would be more appropriate as a concert venue, but was dismayed to discover, in the middle of the renovation work, that the acoustics were unsuitable. Another well-meant but extremely unpopular step he took was to pension off many of the founding generation of Philharmonic players. For the most part they were replaced by us, musicians from the Czech Chamber Orchestra and, although we were - for the first time in the history of the Philharmonic - accepted on the basis of very tough auditions, it must be said that the old orchestral members were right to point out our scant experience and dismal knowledge of the repertoire which threatened the continuity of the orchestra.




Rafael Kubelík talking to Václav Neumann...

and to CPO cellist Miloslav Froněk (photographs © F.Sláma)


During all these changes, Kubelík's enthusiasm seemed to wane somewhat. We first noticed this when we were rehearsing Janáček's Sinfonietta in June 1948. There were several blunders in the difficult introductory fanfare - but that sort of thing would sometimes happen during the initial rehearsals. Kubelík rapped his baton but his face didn't even show dissatisfaction or anger. He just gave a blank stare in the direction of the brass section and softly uttered in an impassive voice: "That's it for today, gentlemen; we'll do Taras Bulba instead." We were amazed that he had resigned himself to a less demanding work, that he had given up so easily. It was as if the firebrand from before the war had just disappeared; his thoughts were far away. We understood why a few weeks later. 

In September 1948 he didn't come back from a foreign tour and notified the management that he would no longer be conducting the Czech Philharmonic. This was a shock for the orchestra and, even though Kubelík's personal reasons were obvious to us, we were still totally disenchanted. The Rudolfinum was half-built, we had foreign tours planned, we had a new repertoire - but now everything hung in the air. But it wasn't just these practical issues, so much as the emotional bonds that had been cultivated over the years, the sense of solidarity and trust existing between the orchestra and Kubelík's father, violin virtuoso Jan Kubelík↗, who had done so much for the Philharmonic and had supported it during its most difficult times.



Concert given by Jan and Rafael Kubelík in 1939: Jan Kubelík violin, Rafael Kubelík piano (concert programme and ticket). - Ticket from a Czech Philharmonic concert featuring Rafael Kubelík as conductor, 1945


The following season began with the quest to find a new Chief Conductor and Artistic Director who would continue the work begun in the past by Václav Talich. Talich himself could not return to his former job: he was not allowed to perform in public in Prague and was only able to record with us occasionally. A large number of the concerts for this season were nevertheless put together by Talich's colleague of many years, Karel Šejna, an authority on the Czech Classical repertoire and a conductor who had since the 1930s humbly and selflessly helped out the Philharmonic whenever the need arose. There were many in the orchestra who had known him as a double bassist, thus he was regarded as a colleague and decent person as well and, during a secret ballot, he was instinctively chosen as Kubelík's interim successor. Also under consideration was young Václav Neumann, recently a colleague in the orchestra and now a renowned chamber musician and co-founder of the Smetana Quartet. There were also those who supported the idea to engage a foreign conductor, Antonio Pedrotti  being the favourite.





 Václav Neumann during the 1970s (photograph © F.Sláma)



The Czech Philharmonic celebrates its 75th and 80th anniversaries with special concerts: Václav Neumann with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the Rudolfinum's Dvořák hall (photograph © Jiří Všetečka)


Conductors - Part 3

Czech Philharmonic and the people around it

Czech Philharmonic in period documents


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