Over the past few months I have become keenly interested in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek and Czech composers ( for various reasons I rekindled my dormant interest in Prague - I have been fascinated by the city since I was in high school over 25 years ago, when our history teacher taught us about the Prague Spring - and since I love classical music it was a natural jump to investigate Czech classical music). This is a post about some of their recordings that I own. This is not about opera, so no Dvorak's Rusalka or Janacek's House of the Dead in there, although the great conductor Vaclav Neumann (1920-1995) deserves a shout-out. Obviously I don't own everything recorded out there by Czech orchestras playing Czech composers, so you will have to forgive me for any omission, but if you feel there's something I really should listen to, feel free to leave me a comment.
Dvorak: Complete Symphonies and Concertos The title says it all: Jiri Belohlavek conducts the Czech Philharmonic in this set of 6 magnificent CDs pairing all symphonies and concertos of Dvorak. As one expects with Dvorak, the music was sweeping. Listening to this gives me back faith in the world. Before I bought this, I was most familiar with Dvorak's later symphonies (excellent here too) but the earlier ones are played with such mastery I have to wonder why they're not presented in concert more often. With that much music (9 symphonies and 3 concertos on 6 CDs) it is impossible to get bored. A remarkable accomplishment from the Czech Philharmonic and Belohlavek, and a great starting point for anyone who wants to either learn more about Dvorak's works or hear more of the Czech Philharmonic.
Martinu: Piano Concertos I had never heard about Martinu before I started buying a lot of Czech music conducted by Belohlavek, and now that I've heard this work I can't help but be stunned that he's not better known. The best way to describe this is: jazzy and Gershwin-esque, but while Gershwin can sometimes come across as a lightweight, Martinu provides deeply satisfying modern music that you can actually listen to, while avoiding the pathos of, say, Shostakovich. Pianist Emil Leichner is in great form. Those piano concertos are a treat to listen to. I am so glad I found this.
Dvorak: Slavonic Dances Dvorak originally wrote this for piano four hands, and drew his inspiration from Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Every piece was composed for a specific type of Slavonic dance. It is hard to imagine the dances being played in a concert hall without having the audience marking the beat or tapping their feet along, but this is perfect when you need a bit of upbeat music to fill you with optimism and motivate you to action. Whenever I listen to this, I think everything will be alright.
Alisa Weilerstein: Dvorak One of the greatest cellists working today, playing Dvorak's magnificent Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Belohlavek: what is there not to like? The music - not just by the soloist but the entire orchestra - is grand and sweeping, at times even outright gut-wrenching. It instils awe at Dvorak's talent but also a determination to be a better person deserving of such music. Inspirational is not too strong a word here. For the history buffs: while the connection to the United States is better known for his Symphony No 9 "To the New World", Dvorak wrote this concerto while in New York City, where he served as Director of the National Conservatory. His String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, was also written while he lived in the United States. (See Pavel Haas Quartet below.)
Pavel Haas Quartet: Dvorak String Quartets G Major Op. 106 and F Major Op. 96 "American" The Pavel Haas Quartet found international success after winning the Prague Spring Competition in 2005, and won the Gramophone Award in 2007 for their recording of Haas and Janacek. My favorite part of this one is the Molto vivace in the String Quartet in G Major. To my American readers who like chamber music: they will be on a (West Coast) US Tour this March, so make sure to see them live in concert if you can.
Martinu: Cello Concertos with of course Jiri Belohlavek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. One recognizes much of Martinu's signature style from the piano concertos (modern while remaining enjoyable to hear) while the majesty of the cello gives gravitas to the sometimes jazzy music. While I prefer the piano concertos, this definitely should be the number-two purchase of anyone building a collection of Martinu's work.
Martinu: Violin Concerto No 2 (this one is with the Prague Philharmonia rather than the Czech Philharmonic) I didn't like this as much as the Martinu piano or cellos concertos - it was more somber, I felt, with few of the upbeat moments that even the cello concertos had - but Isabelle Faust and Cedric Tiberghien are some of my favorite chamber music artists (I am particularly fond of Tiberghien's Beethoven Violin Sonatas Vol 1 with Alina Ibragimova) and whatever they record is worth listening to and I am looking forward to discovering more Martinu works in the future. If you're interested in learning more about Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), here is his Wikipedia page, which states he "wrote 6 symphonies, 15 operas, 14 ballet scores and a large body of orchestral, chamber, vocal and instrumental works." We can all feel underachievers now.
Dvorak in Prague: A Celebration This CD, recorded in Prague in the early 1990s, offers snippets of Dvorak's chamber music work. I like this for Humoresque and the last Slavonic Dance.
And of course, the masterful performance of Ma Vlast by Rafael Kubelik in 1990 at the first Prague Spring Festival after the collapse of the Eastern Block is a must-own. "Life-affirming" is overused these days, but in this case this recording highly deserves it. Imagine sitting in the audience in Prague, the first spring after Czechoslovakia (not yet split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia) became free again. Then play the first movement. The music makes the case for itself. (Note: to the best of my knowledge, there is no MP3 recording of it. The Amazon webpage links to the MP3 recording of a completely different and rather ordinary performance by a different orchestra with a different conductor. The CD is what you want.) This music fills me with awe every time. Profoundly inspirational.