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 Recording of the Week  Two legendary performances

Live recordings of truly legendary performances are rare. I was reminded of one just a few months ago when watching a new documentary about the genius Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. He produced one such occasion at the 1968 Proms season when he played the Dvorak Cello Concerto on the very day that the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague.

Mstislav Rostropovich
Mstislav Rostropovich

Accompanied by a Russian orchestra and Russian conductor, the concert had attracted much attention with protesters with banners denouncing the Soviet invasion both inside and outside the Royal Albert Hall. The fact that Rostropovich was playing the Dvorak Concerto – one of the most intensely nostalgic and nationalistic works in the repertoire – made the whole event even more significant.

It is a deeply moving performance, faster than all his others, but so honest and genuine. Rostropovich had a great love of Prague and the Czech people having won his first music competition there and visited frequently for concerts. He apparently played the whole concert with tears running down his face. Afterwards he held Dvorak’s score aloft and played the solemn Sarabande from Bach’s Second Solo Cello Suite. There was no doubt where his sympathies lay.

That recording was issued many years ago on BBC legends and is still available today. I mention it this week in particular as another truly legendary performance of Czech repertoire has just been released and the circumstances are not dissimilar.

Václav Talich
Václav Talich

This time the year is 1939 and the performance is from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under their beloved conductor Václav Talich of Smetana’s Má Vlast (My Country). Performed in the National Theatre about three months after the Nazis entered Prague, this performance has astonishing emotional charge.

Má Vlast is a set of six symphonic poems, which although originally written individually, were put together by the composer in 1882 and, with the exception of Vlata, are almost always performed and recorded in that way today. The set represents some of the most nationalistic music you’ll ever hear with each poem depicting some aspect of the countryside or legends of the region.

The first poem, Vyšehrad (The High Castle) describes the castle in Prague perched high above the Vltava river, while the river itself (also known by its German name Die Moldau) is the subject of the second poem, which undoubtedly contains Smetana’s most well-known tune. After that comes Šárka – a central figure in the ancient Czech legend of the Maiden’s War. Fourth and fifth are movements depicting the beautiful Czech countryside and the southern city of Tábor, before the cycle ends with the immensely powerful Blaník.

The legend recounts that a huge army of Czech knights sleep inside the mountain of Blaník and that the knights will awaken and help the Motherland when she is in great danger. The enemies will be pushed back to Prague where they will finally be defeated. It is not hard to imagine what music portraying such a story meant to the oppressed people at that concert in 1939 and after having already burst into wild applause at the end of each poem the triumphant conclusion of Blaník is greeted with massed shouts of approval before the audience spontaneously launches into the national anthem. It is incredibly moving and all captured on a newly issued Supraphon recording.

The two-disc set is completed with the Op. 72 set of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances recorded by the same of orchestra and conductor just eight days later. That’s equally worth hearing and while the sound quality of both this 1939 recording and the Rostropovich one mentioned earlier are obviously not ideal, recordings like these are far too important for that to matter.

Vaclav Talich Live 1939

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Vaclav Talich

Available Format: CD