VACLAV TALICH

1883-1961

About the time that podium dynamo-to-be Albert Coates was playing cello in Arthur Nikisch’s Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra Václav Talich was a violinist under the same Schnellzug-hopper of a maestro at the Berlin Philharmonic. Although Talich soon took the plum job of concertmaster at the Odessa Opera it wasn’t long before he was graduating from one to another Czech podium; age 35 and he was principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in Prague. Talich didn’t give the Cunard Line as much business as Coates – a pity he never appeared (so far as I can tell) in America — but an international audience grew up on the Dvorak recordings he made in Prague not long before the “world situation” turned to toast in ’39. The wonderful one, for instance, of the Seventh Symphony (ex No. 2): such an intimate, knowing, secret-revealing performance.

For starters Talich’s discography was exclusively Czech; eventually there emerged evidence of his skills as a Mozartian-Tchaikovskian-Wagnerian. And then it was easier to size him up as a conductor of great charm and panache. Look to the “live” Mozart 33rd with the CPO from 6-9-54: the opening movement is so courtly and awhirl, the music almost breathless. From ardor, doubtless! Into the andante moderato he pours carefully the crucial breadth of a tempo a shade sub-andante — at the risk of becoming the dogmatist I abhor I must say this is the only true way in this music. I once drove 130 miles to a festival and was so cheated by a conductor who andante’d, well, andante con moto’d, through this movement, that I felt like driving right home again. Talich in the finale is all sunlight, the atmosphere drawing room comedy, the music making light lunges at the microphones.

There’s an equally fetching Mozart 39 from Talich, notable most of all for an extremely slow second movement, very searching this near-dirge, and very effective.

A Tchaikovsky Pathétique recording from 1953 is gauzy but rhythmic, decked in a wonderful sonority. At the start the music seems to come out of nowhere, the cellos and basses on their sustained pianissimo notes — it’s as if the instruments were drawing in a breath. Curves and colors are much savored as this sonically tasty performance continues; it’s non-abrasive, smooth enough you could skate on it, but amply dramatic. And if Nikisch had lived to record the Pathétique, preferably electronically, we might know better how much of that superstar Hungarian rubbed off on Talich. Possibly not so much. In a recording of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde Talich certainly sounds original. The music proceeds with scarcely concealed anger up to the first big fortissimo at measure 17 — well, Wagner’s heroine begins in the opera as a very angry lady, at least on her stentorian level of First Scene consciousness — then with the melody of the cellos it becomes docile. And soon after that imbued with desolation, the music almost refusing to go on, its impetus deliberately compromised. Not so there’s any sense of the performance lacking tension or focus, be assured of that, but This Is Clear: the protagonist behind the notes, boy, girl or both, is clinically depressed. All this and one’s appetite grows for Talich’s undocumented Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz . . .