UNDERRATED / In the nature of things

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ON 29 June, one of the world's greatest conductors celebrated his 80th birthday; and yet there were no glossy CD 'Editions' to mark the occasion, and precious little in the way of editorial tributes. Why? Because Rafael Kubelik's self-effacing 'image' has upstaged his musicianship. While his life has been full of significant incident, his only recent claim to international attention was a belated return to post-Communist Prague - after 40 years of self-imposed exile.

In an age where personal flamboyance seems almost de rigueur for any self-promoting maestro, Kubelik has preferred to take creative flight away from the limelight. And make no mistake, when the altitude is high, he reveals all. His Bruckner is no mere Alpine travelogue, but a real-life confrontation with God and mountains; his Dvorak has an urgent message to impart (no one makes the Seventh Symphony sound more potentially inflammable); his Smetana eschews comfortable nationalism for a dark and dangerous hinterland; his Janacek has its roots in earth and instinct; and his Schumann coaxes secrets that others barely sense.

And yet there is no distinctive Kubelik 'sound', no aural dress sense to facilitate a cult following. His art lies in a whole roster of sensibilities that locate and interpret discrete but significant creative codes: subtle stylistic gestures that guard the key to a comprehensive vision of the score, one that Kubelik the composer knows as 'from the inside'.

No one makes Beethoven's Choral Symphony sound more humbling or 'modern', and when Kubelik recreates the founding universe in Mahler's Third, or destroys it in the Sixth, we suddenly feel that Mahler is after all a far greater composer than the gluey excesses of more indulgent interpreters would have us believe.

The most accurate keyword for Kubelik's art is 'nature' - in other words, the whole range of experiential baggage that any composer brings into our world. Kubelik, like Klemperer before him, opts for controlled animation and internal dialogue rather than a heavily textured 'wall of sound'. Like Furtwangler, he prompts the composer himself to emerge, genie-like, from the pages of the score. The trick is to communicate that sense of eternal searching, even though it means equivocation, which can be misunderstood as vagueness, or lack of commitment. Perhaps that explains why Kubelik remains one of our most glaring misinterpretations.