From the moment Rafael Kubelik began his slow, deliberate walk to the podium (his health has been uneven of late), it was obvious that he is loved by the European throng—far and away the warmest welcome offered by the audience during the festival.
And soon Má Vlast began.
This is an epic work and a fitting close to the 1984 season which featured many Czech composers and that country’s finest conductor, unable to return to his “Fatherland” given the current political realities. (He would, in fact, return in 1990 and conduct Má Vlast with his beloved Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.)
At once, there was vintage Kubelik: the music surged and sang as he led the orchestra, spurring everyone to do their utmost. It was hard to believe these Bavarians were the same musicians heard just two nights ago with Sir Colin Davis (cross-reference below). The strings produced a much warmer tone—of course, there were a few vagaries of pitch, dicey ensemble and the odd bloop in the trumpets, but none of those blemishes mattered in the overarching context of everyone being immersed in Smetana’s spectacular tone poems. The magical “Moldau” seemed too fast, even understanding Kubelik knows more about these scores than I could ever hope to, but the opening was a tad rushed, robbing the flow of the stormier contrasts that awaited downstream.
The premium ticketholders of the capacity house burst into applause after the final, famous cadence, causing those of us in the inexpensive seats and Kubelik to quickly shush them up and let Šárka emerge from silence. As before, the towering maestro had a very awkward physical approach to loud entries, but, somehow, the orchestra didn’t respond with what looked like an invitation to crassness, instead finding its way to a full-bodied mountain of fantastic colour. Unlike so many others, Kubelik knows what the left hand can do and uses it judiciously (especially for long-line legato and bottom-enhancing sustaining passages) to lovingly pull extra layers and currents of sound from the musicians, yet always in the service of the art, not its only goal.
The audience was again quite liberal with its applause prior to the interval; Kubelik has the charming habit of walking right into the orchestra and shaking the hand of any player deserving extra thanks, it’s so much more human than just pointing a finger and having them stand amongst their seated colleagues.
The orchestra was set up in traditional Kubelik style (second violins on the outside, etc.). He was also the only conductor during these concerts to put the woodwinds, brass and percussion on risers, which really made the various instruments sound as if they were coming out of the mass of sound rather than over top of it.
The second half was more of the same. It was a pleasure to realize that at least one man in the world knows how to “play” the orchestra. It was also delightfully obvious that the musicians have great respect for their leader (unlike the jaded New York Philharmonic whose behaviour during a rehearsal of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was nothing short of abominable) and, consequently, played their hearts out and took ours with them. Having Davis as their regular music director must be dispiriting indeed.
Needless to say, the crowd went wild at the end of the performance. Both players and conductor alike thanked one another for sharing such a magnificent evening of music making. None knew it then, but we had seen and most fortunately heard the final concert of Rafael Kubelik at the Lucerne Festival. His failing health brought about his retirement in 1985. What a rich legacy and exceptional standard of performance he left behind that those who follow can only hope to match, much less surpass. JWR