Norman Lebrecht

The essential Kubelik

A new box set of his complete DG recordings includes many performances no record lover should be without

The essential Kubelik
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Rafael Kubelik is watching Wimbledon when I enter his suite at the Savoy. ‘Tennis fan?’ I ask, slightly surprised. He shakes his head. ‘No. Just her.’

It is 1983, the high summer of Martina Navratilova. ‘She will win,’ says Kubelik in the decisive tone that conductors use to save rehearsal time. ‘And one day my country will be free.’

He had flown out of Prague in February 1948 not daring to tell his wife and son until they landed in London that the communists had seized power and they could never return home. Sir Adrian Boult, a gent among time-beaters, offered to hand Kubelik his job with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but there was no lack of bids for the exiled chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic.

Kubelik went to the Chicago Symphony where he lasted three years, run out of town by a poison-pen critic (his version) anda board of directors that hated him performing a black composer’s symphony. Back in London, Kubelik gave an influential account of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova at Sadler’s Wells (its second outing in the UK), leading to his installation in 1955 as music director at Covent Garden.

Once again, the job was short-term.A grouch in the Times by Sir Thomas Beecham about ‘third-rate foreigners’ led him to quit in 1958, having raised the ROH to world standard with the first full staging of Berlioz’s Les Troyens and the launch of Joan Sutherland and Jon Vickers as major stars. Kubelik went to Munich to head the Bavarian radio orchestra, taking with him the Australian soprano Elsie Morison as his second wife and inseparable companion.

His return in July 1983 was prompted by the LSO’s dismay at the nightmare acoustic of the new Barbican Hall where players could not hear each other and the audience was dwindling by the week. Vastly experienced, Kubelik put wooden risers under the rear strings, mellowing the sound in a set of Brahms symphonies that lives on in my memory for its unforced elegance. Kubelik, an awkwardly tall man with uncontrollable clumps of hair, was the least flashy maestro I have ever seen.

A new box of his complete DG recordings on 64 CDs, most of them with Bavarian radio, confirm my impression of an organic style of music-making in which musicians are not just trusted but also positively encouraged to take risks within the rock-base of Kubelik’s confidence. There’s a Mozart Clarinet Concerto played by the Berlin principal Karl Leister in which the tempo feels as natural and the freedom as absolute as it would have been in Mozart’s salon.

Let me briskly list the indispensables. Kubelik’s account of Pfitzner’s Palestrina is unsurpassed on record, likewise his Schumann symphonies (the Rhenish, especially), the Smetana symphonic poems and Ma Vlast, and the cycle of Dvorak symphonies that comes to an aching conclusion with the interlude ‘My Homeland’. Many of us heard our first Schoenberg from Kubelik — whether the gargantuan Gurrelieder or the Piano Concerto with Alfred Brendel and the Violin Concerto with Zvi Zeitlin. His respect for Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the only German symphonist to show anti-Nazi resistance, is marked by two symphonies; his interpretation of Janacek’s smaller pieces avoids the customary bucolic excesses. No record lover should ever be without these.

But it’s the Mahler symphonies that impress me most. Recorded in the same years as Leonard Bernstein’s New York set, Kubelik’s was crushed by Lenny gush and has seldom been credited for the unique insights he achieves. Mahler’s ironies are nowhere so pronounced as here, in the third movement of the First Symphony, where the funeral march turns into a down-and-dirty orgy, and in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony where the concertmaster, playing a cheap fiddle, delivers a migrant threat to sedate society. The Bohemian hills and lakes evoked in the Third and Seventh Symphonies are as much Kubelik’s heritage as Dvorak’s or Smetana’s. Only in the extravagance of Mahler’s Second and Eighth Symphonies does Bernstein have the edge.

There could have been more recordings than these 64. Jonathan Carr, late German bureau chief for the Economist, told me that, of the 70-odd Meistersingers he heard in his life, Kubelik’s was on a plane all its own. But Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, seeing Thomas Stewart preferred to him as Sachs, got DG to kill the release. Kubelik, never a street fighter, acquiesced. His portrait on the Dvorak cycle is almost embarrassingly reticent, as if he’s trying to escape the frame before the shutter clicks.

The last time I saw Kubelik was in May 1990, at the first Prague Spring after the fall of communism. I was in a church in the Mala Strana, waiting for a recital of chamber music by three aged composers who had been suppressed by the regime. The atmosphere was edgy; everyone thought the secret police were still around, still taking names. A sudden hush fell. A tall figure, stooped by now with age, walked down the nave to the front row, shook hands with the composers and sat among them. Kubelik was home. The music could begin.

Rafael Kubelik: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon is out now.