The Kubelik difference: a quest for the heart of the music. Maestro's disinterest in showy effects, love of work at hand is felt by audiences
Rafael Kubelik has finished his annual stint with the New York Philharmonic. He gets generally fine results from this often testy group, and he spends quite a bit of time here in New York. Next year, he is promised yet again for four weeks, making him - in all but name - principal guest conductor of the orchestra.
Now, the Philharmonic has more than several fine conductors every season to help music director Zubin Mehta execute a season of musical encounters. But somehow, Kubelik's times here are always just a bit more interesting, more stimulating. It's not necessarily unusual choices or repertoire - the two big works this time around were the seventh symphonies of Dvorak and Beethoven. True , earlier in the season, his showcases were Janacek's ''Sinfonietta'' and Bruckner's Third Symphony, neither standard repertoire works. But it is Kubelik's dedication to thoroughness, his ability to communicate his grand love for the music at hand to his players, and through them to his audiences.
Maestro Kubelik is a great giant of a man, with his remaining hair flying out in two great wisps that give his walk to the podium a sort of ethereal, floating quality. In fact, he looks far more like a lovable absent-minded professor than one of the finest conductors of the day. He grabs the baton in his right fist, stretches both arms out in front, raises the baton-clutching right hand in a clumsy arc, and gives them a lunging downbeat.
Once that grandly imprecise gesture is passed, however, the pulse is clearly sustained, and he sways and twists his baton through the air with delicate communication of rubato - the stretching of the beat.
Adjusting to Maestro Kubelik often takes some time. Last year, he had opened his stay with Mahler's gargantuan Seventh Symphony, and the first performance was a disaster: The orchestra players simply could not stay together, let alone give the sort of nuanced performance he was trying to coax out of them. Later on that year, he was able to lead them through a warm, effusive account of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. And the crowning achievement of that season was a glorious Beethoven Ninth, played for music and beauty, not philosophy and bombast. (I was startled on that occasion by the slovenly stage deportment of the Westminster Choir, which distracted mightily from that performance - readers , dozers, yawners, idle dreamers, with very few really paying attention to the music.)
And here is the Kubelik difference. Where so many are out to make a show - often thrilling, sometimes profound, occasionally arrogant - Kubelik chooses to find the music. All his decisions are based on musical, not theatrical motivations. He keeps a steady pulse to his conducting, using rubato to strengthen a point, not just show that he can control 96-plus players.
His Beethoven Seventh Symphony was standard in approach, rather Central European of tradition, yet within that framework, one sensed his lifetime of working with this score, his deep understanding of the musical tensions, and the necessity of getting this across through deep, full orchestral playing. The Philharmonic responded handsomely to his desires.
His approach to Hindemith's ''Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber'' is jovial, jubilant. Earlier in the year he had quite a tough time prodding the orchestra through Bruckner's Third Symphony, for they seemed to utterly refuse to follow the pulse. More's the pity, since the Bruckner unfolded with broad expansive warmth and fervor. And the Dvorak Seventh was everything one would have expected from his superb recording with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG - 2530 127) - vital, dramatic, an exploration of brooding landscapes and dark vistas.
And what about Kubelik the accompanist? Earlier in the season he substituted for Andre Previn, taking over a program that included the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Kyung-Wha Chung the soloist. She and Kubelik did not really see eye to eye, nor did the maestro seem entirely at ease in the angular score.
The following week he led Murray Perahia through the Mozart Piano Concerto, K. 466, and while the approach was rather more massive than one is used to from Mr. Perahia's recorded performances with the English Chamber Orchestra, it was nonetheless a substantial partnership, with Perahia playing expansively, limpidly, and Kubelik matching him mood shift for mood shift. From the harpsichord, he allowed a reduced orchestra to bubble along through the Vivaldi Bassoon Concerto that showcased the virtuoso playing of Philharmonic first-desk player Judith LeClair - elegantly phrased, superbly executed.
The Kubelik recorded catalog is not as large as one might expect. There are some sensational recordings on Mercury Gold Imports from his Chicago Symphony days. There is also a superb Dvorak cycle on DG records, the best complete Mahler symphonies (most of which have been reissued on DG Privilege), and the definitive Schumann Symphonies set on DG Privilege. A glorious Bartok ''Concerto for Orchestra'' (DG 2530 479) documented one of the rare collaborations between Kubelik and the Boston Symphony (a Beethoven Fifth being the other), a partnership that should not have been allowed to founder.
After too long a silence, Columbia Records has begun to make amends. They went to the Bavarian Radio Symphony, once Kubelik's own orchestra. The first release was a three-record set devoted to the four symphonies of Schumann, along with the ''Manfred Overture'' (M3 35199).
These vintage Kubelik readings do not, however, supersede his extraordinary readings with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG Privilege. But two digital releases have recently hit the market. Both are superb. One record is devoted to elegant, buoyant performances of Mozart's 40th and 41st (''Jupiter'') symphonies. The other issue is devoted to Bruckner's Fourth Symphony and Wagner's ''Siegfried Idyll.''
The sound is thrilling; the performance captures with eloquence, majesty, and profundity the very essence of this expansive work, making it one of the finest and most beautiful performances available today. (And by spreading it onto three sides, there is no side change in the middle of a movement, and the sound in the grooves does not tend to distortion.) The Wagner is given a loving performance.
If the Bavarians do not play as well as others technically, their deep-rooted understanding of what Kubelik wants at every bar comes vividly across.