Some of the least-known recordings by Rafael
Kubelík are among those he made during his second contract with EMI, which
covered the period between January 1958 and December 1960. This was a difficult
phase in the recording industry's history, when stereo technology was gradually
taking over from mono, and when companies were obliged to market their new
recordings in both formats. It was also something of an intermediate phase in
The first phase had begun at the tender age of 19, in January 1934, when he made his conducting début with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme that included one of his own works, a Fantasy for Violin, with his father, the great violinist Jan Kubelík as soloist. He then went on an 18-month world tour as accompanist to his father, before returning to Prague and more concerts with the Czech Philharmonic. He led the orchestra on a tour to England in October 1937, deputising for an indisposed Václav Talich, and he made his first recordings at this time, in London, for HMV. He became musical director of the Brno Opera in 1939 until its closure by the Nazis in 1941, and he was then made chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1942. He was still only 28 years old.
For a short time after the end of the second world war he enjoyed renewed artistic freedom. In addition to a number of Supraphon recordings he also made some HMV records, in October 1946, with a visiting British team headed by Walter Legge. Initially the three-year HMV contract was quite ambitious, with an extensive series of Czech works as proposed repertoire, but in the event only Janácek's Sinfonietta (available on Testament SBT 1181) and three Dvorák overtures were recorded. One problem was the changing political situation in Czechoslovakia, and when the communist takeover in 1948 brought new restrictions Kubelík left his native land for England. He made more HMV recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra under a new exclusive contract which commenced in October 1948.
Kubelík made a big impression on the Philharmonia and on Walter Legge, who in a memo wrote that ten members of the orchestra had asked him to make Kubelík their principal conductor and that he was "probably the best young conductor in the world, except for Karajan". But it was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to whom Kubelík became contracted as chief conductor in 1950. RCA, who were HMV's affiliates in the USA, had no interest in recording the Chicago orchestra, but the new Mercury company was certainly interested. It reached an agreement with HMV whereby recordings with Kubelík and the Chicago SO would be published by Mercury in the USA, but on HMV labels elsewhere. HMV also had the right to veto repertoire which clashed with their own schedules. In the event there were no problems, since Mercury were far more enterprising than HMV, and the repertoire included the first ever recording of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 and works by Bartók, Bloch and Hindemith, in addition to some standard repertoire including Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Sixth Symphonies Kubelík's only recordings of these works apart than those in this set.
Relations between Kubelík and HMV's parent company EMI became strained in 1952. Several of the conductor's Philharmonia recordings had taken a long time to be published, and he felt that they were given insufficient publicity. In December Walter Legge offered him a renewal of his expiring contract, which he refused. The matter dragged on for several months: Kubelík's American agent Andrew Schulhoff argued that his contract had ended, while EMI's David Bicknell maintained that an option for a further year had to be fulfilled. Meanwhile Kubelík had encountered opposition to his artistic policies in Chicago, and resigned his post. He was no longer under contract to Mercury.
In August 1953 Legge urged that EMI should resolve the situation with Kubelík, but within weeks there came news that he had signed a contract with Decca. It was planned that he would make records with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. In the event the Dutch orchestra was soon lost to Philips, and only one of Kubelík's Decca sessions took place in Israel: a version of Dvorák's Serenade for Strings was published, but the same composer's Eighth Symphony was rejected owing to the poor quality of the brass section. It was therefore with the VPO that Kubelík made all but one of his Decca records.
In August 1954 Walter Legge reported on feedback he had received from orchestras that Kubelík showed "lack of concentration", that he was "too easily satisfied", and that there were "various purely musical things which unless altered will count against him". In his book Putting the record straight (Secker & Warburg, London, 1981), the Decca producer John Culshaw noted that at one point the conductor was not holding the Vienna Philharmonic together firmly enough, and that the sound coming into the control room was therefore "swimming".
EMI still wanted to have Kubelík back. They knew that he was not settled with Decca (Culshaw suggested that he found it "too aggressive an organisation"), and they believed that under their auspices he would recover his best form. After four years he did in fact return. Between April 1958 and November 1959 he undertook HMV sessions with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in repertoire that included works by Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók, Janácek, Dvorák and Martinů°. His principal producer was Victor Olof, who had also recently migrated from Decca: Walter Legge was now exclusively involved with EMI's other principal classical label, Columbia.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was now available to EMI, and Olof proposed that Kubelík should record several works including the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies with the VPO. Only the Fourth Symphony was initially approved by EMI's International Classical Repertoire Committee, and this was recorded by Kubelík at Viennese sessions in January 1960 which also included symphonies by Schubert and Borodin. The ICRC was then persuaded to let Kubelík record Symphonies Nos.5 and 6, and these were included in VPO sessions that took place in November 1960, the other works being Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik. By now Kubelík had let it be known that he wanted to record for EMI on a non-exclusive basis. He had been musical director at Covent Garden between 1955 and 1958, and was about to become conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which had connections with DG. But David Bicknell insisted that he should fulfil his current obligations. Kubelík's last sessions under the existing contract were in fact slightly out of time, when he recorded several works by Mozart with the VPO in January 1961.
EMI now stated, with perhaps understandable coolness, that Kubelík would now make records for the company "as required". In fact he made only a few more EMI recordings, the most ambitious being that of Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler in 1977. Most of his many recordings from 1961 onwards were made for DG with his own Bavarian orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic.
In 1990, aged 75, he made his first visit in 42 years to a liberated Prague. There he came out of retirement and literally shrugged off painful shoulder arthritis to conduct his old orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, in Smetana's Má vlast, the work traditionally performed to open the Prague Spring Festival. Nothing could have rounded off his career more satisfactorily than this and his return visit to the orchestra in 1991. He died in 1996 at the age of 82.
© Alan Sanders, 2003
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