Obituaries: Rafael Kubelik

Robert Ponsonby
Monday 12 August 1996 23:02

Rafael Kubelik, the Czech conductor, was in every way a big man: tall and robust in physique, he was the most generous of human beings and he inspired devoted affection among his friends and colleagues.

The son of the violinist Jan Kubelik, he was born in Bychory, in Bohemia, in 1914. As a student at the Prague Conservatoire, he made his debut with the Czech Philharmonic at the age of 20, being appointed its principal conductor in 1936. In this capacity he appeared in London in 1937 (and Henry Wood noted that he was not yet to be compared with the great Vaclav Talich). From 1939 to 1941 he was director of the Brno Opera, where he began to explore Janacek and where he pioneered Berlioz's Les Troyens - an amazingly original undertaking.

He then returned to the Czech Philharmonic, with whom he made such a reputation that in 1946 he was a guest with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - at the People's Palace (where Janacek's Sinfonietta had to be replaced with Dvorak's 7th Symphony because the BBC had not budgeted for the extra trumpets) and in the studio. An internal BBC memo noted that he only needed "a little more poise" to establish himself as an international star.

In 1948 Czechoslovakia turned Communist and Kubelik left, taking up residence in London. This was convenient because Glyndebourne had invited him to conduct Don Giovanni at the Edinburgh Festival that summer. (He was the first Glyndebourne conductor to use a harpsichord as continuo, Fritz Busch having always preferred the piano.) The performance, made unforgettable by Ljuba Welitsch's riveting Donna Anna, was richly romantic and it so greatly enhanced Kubelik's reputation that, next year, he was approached as a possible successor to Adrian Boult - who was to be retired at 60 - with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

A rival offer from the Chicago Symphony, however (and his wife's preference for the United States to England), took him to Chicago, where he was musical director for three seasons, 1950-53. Though he premiered Roy Harris's 7th Symphony among other works, his repertoire was thought to be unduly narrow - and he perhaps lacked the "brilliance" by which that orchestra liked to identify itself.

The next landmark in his career came in 1954, at Sadler's Wells, when he revived Katya Kabanova, which Charles Mackerras had introduced three years earlier. The revival was a triumph and it was no doubt the main reason why, a year later, he was appointed musical director at Covent Garden.

At the Royal Opera House an introductory Bartered Bride (1955) led to Otello the same year, Jenufa (1956) and The Trojans - which John Gielgud directed - in 1957, when he also appeared with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival. But the Covent Garden years were not to be happy ones. Fiercely loyal to the principle of "opera in English", to the native singers in his company and to the idea of a national ensemble, Kubelik was unwillingly involved in operatic politics. Attacked by, among others, Thomas Beecham, he characteristically and unwisely offered to resign (in a letter to the Times) "since I do not want to be in the way as a foreigner". His resignation was rejected, but a disappointing Mastersingers (a work he was gloriously to record in Munich in 1967) set the seal upon his future and he left Covent Garden in 1958.

George Harewood, then working at the Opera House, wrote of "his ability to give unstintingly to colleagues, company, audience and above all to the music" and spoke of Kubelik's three years there as "the best of my life".

Between 1958 and 1961, when he was appointed to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Kubelik was a guest with many great orchestras, the Vienna and Israel Philharmonic among them. In Munich, Die Meistersinger apart, he recorded a complete Mahler cycle and worked often with Fischer-Dieskau - in Mahler songs, Franck's Les Beatitudes and Debussy's Pelleas. Together, too, they went to Milan to record Rigoletto. Elsewhere, as a guest, he offered Dvorak, whose complete symphonies he recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic, Smetana and Janacek, as well as the Schumann symphonies, Hindemith, Schoenberg (the concertos), Bartok and some Britten.

In 1971, Goran Gentele, Rudolf Bing's successor at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, invited Kubelik to become its first musical director. The two men had a similar vision of what could be done at the Met and Kubelik, perhaps anticipating a more sympathetic - and less xenophobic - attitude from the press than he had encountered at Covent Garden, accepted the invitation, though Klemperer, whom he had consulted in Switzerland (where both now lived), advised against. But Gentele was killed in a car crash in Sardinia in July 1972, a few weeks before their first season was due to open. So the partnership was dissolved and Kubelik, though he was to guest at the Met, returned to Europe.

Walter Legge, on hearing of his appointment, had written that "much as I like Kubelik, I doubt if he knows his way about the repertoire . . . or has a firm enough way with him to get the desired and necessary results" - a judgement characteristically negative but not without a grain of truth.

From 1972 Kubelik's career began to fade, though he worked here and there as a distinguished guest. He conducted the Otto Klemperer Memorial Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1974 and he appeared at the Lucerne Festival, conducting his own Sequenzen, the following year. At the Prague Spring in 1990 he returned to his own country, conducting an unforgettable performance of Smetana's Vltava at the opening concert of the festival, an occasion celebrating the collapse of the Soviet Union's hegemony over Eastern Europe. Thereafter he visited Prague from time to time, but only as a listener, for he was beginning to be ill and, for the sake of a warm climate, was spending some of his time in Florida.

Kubelik was twice married, first to the violinist Ludmila Bertlova, then in 1963 to the Australian soprano Elsie Morison, a member of the Covent Garden company during his regime there, who had sung for Glyndebourne at the Edinburgh Festival in 1953. They were a devoted couple.

Rafael Kubelik was the composer of two operas - Veronika given at Brno in 1947, and Cornelia Faroli, heard at Augsburg in 1972 - three requiems, various concertos and a choral symphony. But he will be chiefly remembered as a magnificent interpreter of Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek and Martinu, and of late Romantic music - Wagner and Mahler in particular. He was a man of shining musical and personal integrity, perhaps ill-equipped for the cut-and-thrust of musical politics. He tended to wear his heart on his sleeve and was all the more loved for doing so.

Adrian Boult (a much more charitable man then Walter Legge) wrote of Kubelik, "There is no one I would rather make way for."

Rafael Jeronym Kubelik, conductor: born Bychory, Bohemia 29 June 1914; married Ludmila Bertlova (died 1961; one son), 1963 Elsie Morison; died Lucerne, Switzerland 11 August 1996.

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