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Rafael Kubelik

One of the most enduringly popular conductors to come out of Eastern Europe during the postwar era, Rafael Kubelik had the good fortune to outlive the communist Czech regime from which he exiled himself, and to return to his homeland a hero late in his career. Throughout his career, Kubelik was a very popular conductor, and a critical favorite as well on two continents, especially where late Romantic and modern works were concerned. The son of violinist Jan Kubelik (1880-1940), Rafael Kubelik studied at the Prague Conservatory with the intention of becoming a composer. He made his debut before the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at age 19, and in 1939 became the Music Director of the National Opera in Brno, Czechoslovakia. In 1941 he became the Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he held until 1948. In 1948, with the establishment of a communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, Kubelik left his homeland, and became an exile for the next 40 years. He became the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1950, at a difficult time in the orchestra's history. Founded 1891 by Theodore Thomas, who was also the orchestra's conductor until 1905, when Frederick Stock succeeded him. Stock had held the conductor's post until his death in 1942, after which the orchestra had gone through a turbulent period, and three music directors in barely eight years, one of whom--Wilhelm Furtwangler--had resigned before ever taking the appointment because of the controversy over his alleged wartime activities. Kubelik's three years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were, at the time, a frustating period. By temperament a persuasive rather than a dictatorial figure, and a diplomat rather than a martinet, he lacked the ability to control the orchestra. Additionally, at age 36, Kubelik's musical sensibilities had been shaped in the early twentieth century rather than the late nineteenth, as had been the case with his immediate predecessors--he programmed far too much modern music for the taste of critics and subscribers. Ultimately the fit just wasn't right between Kubelik and the orchestra, and he gave up the appointment after three years, to be succeeded by Fritz Reiner. Where Kubelik was fortunate was that his appointment coincided with the orchestra making its first major move into long-playing records, on the Mercury label. Among the most celebrated of his two dozen recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a riveting performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, and one of several acclaimed performances of Smetana's My Fatherland. Following that appointment, Kubelik served for three years, from 1955 thru 1958, as Music Director of the Covent Garden Opera in London, where he conducted the British premieres of Janacek's Jenufa and Berlioz's Les Troyens. From 1961 until 1979, he held the post of Music Director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Munich, with which he also recorded extensively (for Deutsche Grammophon), and became the principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the 1973-74 season as well. He also was a most welcomed guest conductor in Chicago on many occasions throughout his later career. During 1973, he moved to Switzerland and became a Swiss citizen. Kubelik was celebrated as a master of rich orchestral color, which was brought out most vividly in the late Romantic and post-Romantic scores for which he was most popular. This included much of the late nineteenth century Russian repertory, and virtually all of the nationalist music of the era, especially the work of his fellow countrymen Antonin Dvorak, Leos Janacek, and Bedrich Smetana. He recorded the latter's Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) at least four times on as many different labels, from the monaural era into the digital era, the last at a live performance in Prague during 1990 at a concert commemorating the liberation of the country from Communist rule, a recording of which was later released on the Supraphon label. He also appeared as guest conductor with virtually all of the world's major orchestras, and recorded extensively in England, America, and Germany. With the fall of the Communist dictatorship, Kubelik, who had been ill intermittently for several years, returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time in four decades with the intention of resuming full-time his intended career as a composer. As it was, he had authored five operas, several symphonies, and various works for soloist and orchestra, vocal works, and chamber pieces, although he was far and away best known as a conductor. He died in Lucerne in 1996 after a long illness. Rafael Kubelik was among the last conductors to have studied and started his career before World War II (Sir Georg Solti is now the sole active survivor of that generation), and embodied a tradition of robust post-Romantic music making that was ideally suited to the recording medium as well as the concert hall--the sheer number of his recordings that remain in print (including four versions of Ma Vlast), and their equal distribution between the "historical" and modern sections of classical music departments, speaks volumes about his enduring popularity and the validity of his performances, recordings, and interpretations. In Czech music, he had few, if any, equals, but he was also well-suited to the general late Romantic European repertory, and his complete Beethoven and Mahler cycles remained in print for many years. Although relatively little of his operatic work was preserved on record, the small number of these are also well regarded, especially his Rigoletto.
© Bruce Eder Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta Mercury [7] Dvorak Symphony No. 8 Deutsche Grammophon [7] Mahler Complete Symphonies Deutsche Grammophon [6] Mussorgsky Pictures At An Exhibition Mercury [8] Smetana My Fatherland Supraphon [8] My Fatherland Deutsche Grammophon [7] My Fatherland London [5] My Fatherland Mercury [7] Verdi Rigoletto Deutsche Grammophon [6] /TiVo


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