Surely one day soon, someone equal to the task will write a biography of Rafael Kubelik, for his is a story worth telling: a career of disruption, exile, and disappointment that only served to strengthen the spirit of the man and deepen his art. In 1948, Kubelik was driven from his native Czechoslovakia by the Communists. In the 1950's he served as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but was driven from that position by racism and the scurrilous and small-minded criticism of Claudia Cassidy (who objected to his programming modern composers like Bartok and Martinu). As music director of Covent Garden, he introduced new repertory (like Janacek's Katya Kabanova) to great acclaim, but was then set upon by Sir Thomas Beecham (who chauvinistically huffed and puffed about the malign influence of "foreign" directors on the musical life of Merry Old England). Later his appointment as music director of the Metropolitan Opera ended almost as soon as it began when Goren Gentile, the new general manager who had hired him, died in a car crash. But in 1961 Kubelik finally found the safe harbor he had been searching for when he succeeded eugen Jochum as music director of the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra, a position he would hold for the next eighteen years.
Though Kubelik was at home in the sound worlds of composers as different as Handel, Schoenberg, Berlioz, Britten, Roy Harris and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Bruckner was a relatively late addition to his enormous repertory. In fact this performance of the 8th was only the second time Kubelik had performed a Bruckner symphony. (It had been preceded a year earlier by the 3rd). Sixteen years later, this Ninth was one of the last symphonies he ever conducted. Soon after this performance, he was forced to retire due to severe arthritis. Needless to say, listening to these two performances makes for a fascinating and instructive study in contrasts.
This is a very untraditional, secular Bruckner Eighth. There is no trace of heaven-storming rhetoric here, and thus no self-conscious pauses or calculating gearshifts. Kubelik's approach is refreshingly (and characteristically) physical and direct. Overall his tempos, though unhurried, are uniformly faster than we're used to hearing in this music; and for once Bruckner's weighty melodies move with a lilting, dance-like tread. This performance works surprisingly well in the first three movements, but is less convincing in the more complex and demanding finale, where Kubelik has trouble holding the gigantic structure together. In the end, this is an impressive and singular performance, but hardly a definitive one.
A Better Ninth
This Ninth, on the other hand, is one of the truly great recordings of the work. For me, it stands comparison with Furtwangler and Giulini, the two greatest performances I know. What accounts for the difference? Well, for one thing, in the Eighth the orchestra plays with enthusiasm for their still relatively new music director, eager to follow his two-fisted, openhearted approach. In the Ninth they play as if wired into his central nervous system. This is a performance of dramatic, if not violent, extremes, and the orchestra is able to ride out the volcanic swell of the music with a gracious and completely natural sound. Over time Kubelik returned again and again to his favorite Bruckner symphonies (3.4.6), and he seems completely at home here, more willing to trust his instincts, to take risks. The breakneck accelerando he takes into the coda of the first movement is both unorthodox and terrifying.
But there's something else going on here. During the composition of the Ninth Symphony, Bruckner was struggling desperately against infirmities of both mind and body. Sometimes his shaking hand could hardly get the notes down onto the page. What more sympathetic interpreter than a conductor who at this point in his career couldn't move his arms without severe pain? (Those who had the great good fortune to see Kubelik in concert will remember that he was one of the more animated, athletic conductors.) In the Eighth, you have a great conductor having a go at an unfamiliar composer. But in the Ninth, Kublik's identification with Bruckner is complete. Both the symphony and this performance of it demonstrate spiritual resolve, the power of music to transcend physical suffering.
When the opening crescendo, all ninety-six bars of it, breaks like a huge black wave, you know at once that we're going to be dealing with final questions, matters of life and death. In this performance, the first movement matches Robert Simpson's description of it: "dark to the point of pitch-blackness and rent with such anguish as [Bruckner] had until now almost succeeded in keeping out of his music." The scherzo that follows is hardly less so. For me, Kubelik is just as fierce and driven as Furtwangler in this music, the trio even more desperate and jittery. If the adagio is, as Simpson argues, a search for a way out of the terrors of the first two movements, then Kubelik sustains the drama between fear and consolation until the very end, where the accumulated tensions of the entire movement are released in the coda.
A word about that coda. From the sketches Bruckner left behind, it is clear that he wanted the finale to resolve the tensions of the first three movements. When at last he realized he wouldn't live to complete what would have been his longest and most ambitious finale, he considered substituting his Te Deum, and started sketching out a transition to prepare for its appearance. But he soon ran out of time. (Apparently God preferred the three-movement version of the symphony.) Although Bruckner experts would surely disagree, I like to think that at some point Bruckner realized that the coda to the adagio would be sufficient to the need: music of sublime calm in which terror and doubt finally give way to acceptance, and hence to a serenity that is itself a form of grace.
And in this performance, the coda is not just Bruckner taking leave of his life.; it is also Kubelik taking leave of the orchestra he had conducted for eighteen years, of the Munich audience who had come to love him, and of his long career as a conductor. In this context, the music is almost unbearably moving.
As for sound, the Eighth was recorded in serviceable but nondescript mono. You can certainly hear what's going on, though the climaxes suffer from compression. I suspect that fans of Kubelik will want to hear this performance in any case, and they will find much to enjoy, as I did. But in the end, I wish there was a stereo transcription of the performance he gave of this symphony in 1978. That would, I suspect, be something to hear.
The recording of the Ninth is also from a live broadcast, but this time in excellent stereo that lets you hear to fine effect having the first and second fiddles divided to the left and right of the conductor. In fact the sound is detailed and involving. There is a realistic and surprising sense of spaciousness here. Fans of the conductor (or the composer) should require no further prompting. And the recording comes with a considerable bonus: a performance of Handel's Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 10. Handel was one of Kubelik's favorite composers, and he plays this wonderful music lovingly, graciously, with breathtaking charm and poise.