At about the time I began collecting records as a kid in 1954, the recording industry coincidentally introduced stereo to the world. So you could say stereo and I grew up together. And during those early years, it seemed like Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) was everywhere. Month after month he appeared to be recording with a different orchestra somewhere in the world, leading the likes of the Chicago Symphony, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and, of course, the Czech Philharmonic, among others.
On the present reissue album, Maestro Kubelik conducts three different orchestras (Orchestre de Paris, Wiener Philharmoniker, and Cleveland Orchestra) in repertoire he must have recorded a dozen times each. OK, I exaggerate, but you get the point. Practice makes perfect, I suppose, and these remastered DG recordings come to us from a high point in his career--1973-75--just a few years before ill health began curtailing his work.
The program begins with one of Beethoven's most-cherished compositions, the Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 "Pastorale" from 1808. It is among the composer's few programmatic pieces, describing as it does a kind of idealized bucolic scene. Beethoven starts it with an "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside"; continues with a "Scene by the brook"; follows with a "Merry gathering of country folk"; interrupts the proceedings with some brief "Thunder and Storm"; and then concludes tranquilly with a "Shepherd's song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm."
Kubelik leads the Orchestra de Paris in a straightforward, fairly routine interpretation of these events. In fact, the Sixth seems more casual than I'm used to hearing, not just more leisurely but more sluggish. One could argue that such a relaxed approach is just what the music needs to portray the Arcadian serenity of the countryside, but Kubelik seems to go it one further, making the music appear almost sleep-inducing. For my tastes, I prefer the old standbys from Fritz Reiner (RCA, JVC, or HDTT), Karl Bohm (DG), Bruno Walter (Sony), Otto Klemperer (EMI), and Eugen Jochum (EMI).
Disc two opens with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1812), which Kubelik performs with the Vienna Philharmonic. The composer considered it one of his best works, and during the premiere the audience demanded an encore of the second movement. In fact, conductors sometimes play the second movement by itself, separate from the rest of the symphony. One admirer, composer Richard Wagner, referred to the work's lively rhythms as the "apotheosis of the dance."
The second disc ends with the Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812), a piece Beethoven called his "little Symphony in F" because his Symphony No. 6 in F is almost twice as long. The Eighth is cheerful in mood, sometimes loud, but mainly light. It is also the symphony the general public often overlooks, squeezed as it is among the longer, more prominent, and more acclaimed Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth.
Kubelik's handling of the score seems a tad too serious to me, although the second movement has a charming playfulness to it. Overall, though, it never appeared to soar or seem much more than a commonplace reading. Again I preferred several other recordings to Kubelik's, favorite recordings from Roger Norrington (Virgin), David Zinman (Arte Nova), and Eugen Jochum (Philips) in particular.
Deutsche Grammophon recorded the music in Quadraphonic at the Salle Wagram, Paris in 1973; the Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna in 1974; and Severance Hall, Cleveland in 1975. Pentatone remastered it on SACD for multichannel and two-channel stereo playback. I listened in the SACD two-channel mode.
Although the recordings span three different orchestras and halls over a period of three years, the sound is remarkably alike. In the Sixth, it's smooth and fairly clean, with a touch of soft warmth, a clear if sometimes slightly harsh high end, and little deep bass. So it's a bit thin, although it displays a moderately good depth of field and more than adequate room ambience. Perhaps the multichannel would open it up better. In the Seventh the sound appears miked a tad closer, yielding better detail but at the expense of some losing some hall ambience. Then in the Eighth, we get the best of both worlds, with good definition at a reasonable distance from the orchestra, and even a little better dynamic impact and bass response.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: