Jeremy Lee writes
No matter how much high praise Kubelik’s 1960s Dvorak cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic has received, I’ve always felt that the Berlin Philharmonic’s glossy, glassy, all-pervasive string sound (thank you, Herr von Karajan) sank the ship despite the effort Kubelik may have put in trying to hammer in some Bohemian style into the Berlin players’ minds, and the bloodless, harsh and screechy sonics rendered some sections absolutely intolerable, even painful, to listen to–the string melody in trio of the 8th’s scherzo, for example, which never fails to send shivers down my spine (but not in a good way). Fast forward the clock to 1975, when Kubelik recorded the Slavonic Dances with his much more comfortable-sounding Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and finally we can enjoy all of Kubelik’s inimitable grasp of his homeland’s musical idiom without having to puncture our eardrums.
When I first fed this disc into my computer and the first chord of the very first dance appeared, I felt like I was struck by lightning. What precision, so clean yet so alarming! Kubelik takes this dance, as well as the other faster dances, at an extremely fast tempo, driving the music at a true Presto and letting no subtleties get in the way. With this approach, the music takes on a dimension of riotous, boisterous wildness and untamed primitiveness that alludes to pieces as variegated as the final dance from Daphnis et Chloe and Rite of Spring. However, despite Kubelik’s furious tempo, he keeps all the rhythms precise and clean, never once blurring the cross-rhythms that make these dances so particularly Czech. The Bavarian musicians respond with magnificent gusto, and the way they manage to hang on with such aplomb at the end when Kubelik injects even more momentum has to be heard to be believed.
Are all the dances so hardly driven? Certainly not. The Skočná (Op. 46 No. 7) is one of my favorite dances in the cycle–a dainty, tiptoeing little gem–and, at a relaxing (but not relaxed) tempo, Kubelik reveals all that charm and vivacity, no small part thanks to the characterful double-reed solos: at last, Haitink’s terrific Concertgebouw players have met their match. In the slow dances, and especially the popular Sousedská (the last number of the last set), Kubelik coaxes lush, dark playing from his string and wind players, sensitivity imbuing the music with a tinge of melancholy and deep feeling.
Throughout, Kubelik is aided by an orchestra who undoubtedly feel the music better than their countrymen in the north. The strings, while rich, never once cover the characterful, colorful wind and brass. Meanwhile, the hard-sticked timpani, balanced to the fore, offer a solid and incisive base to both the rhythms and the orchestra sonority, while the cymbal player tackles his tricky parts with aplomb. And as mentioned, the playing is fantastic.
My copy is an old, out-of-print Galleria issue (the recording’s first CD release), and that’s what the cover photo above is, but you’ll be able to obtain these same performances on DG Originals, whose remastering tames the Galleria release’s shrillness, as I’ve been told. Ultimately, whatever version you own, there’s no denying that Kubelik’s Slavonic Dances are absolutely vital: both in the sense of “
- Album name: Dvorak: Slavonic Dances
- Performers: Rafael Kubelik (conductor); Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
- Label: DG Galleria 419 056-2
- Sonics: Stereo ADD
- Total playing time: 70:25