Rafael Kubelik

A Portrait [DVD Video]

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Deutsche Grammophon's big three conductors in the stereo era were Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm, and Rafael Kubelik -- which just goes to show how many great conductors there were in those halcyon days. But while in the digital era Karajan's is still a household name in musical homes, Böhm's is barely recalled and Kubelik's hardly registers -- which just goes to show how easily the greats of one generation become the unknowns of the next. This state of affairs, however deplorable, is inevitable, and for those of the digital generation it leaves the work of a great many unknowns to be rediscovered.

Few would be as deserving of rediscovery as Kubelik. As the performances on these two DVDs show, Kubelik had everything one could want in a great conductor: luminous textures, propulsive rhythms, surging lyricism, soaring drama, and total artistic integrity. With the three best continental orchestras, the Berlin Philharmoniker, the Wiener Philharmoniker, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Kubelik performs some of the finest works in the standard Austro-Germanic orchestral repertoire: Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, Beethoven's Second and Third symphonies plus his Leonore IIIOverture, and Bruckner's Fourth Symphony. With his elegant gestures, muscular baton technique, and subtly expressive face, Kubelik's Mozart is gracefully sublime, his Beethoven is brashly heroic, and his Bruckner is the musical peasant-saint we all knew he was. Despite the varying venues, the big, detailed sound is uniformly superb, but the visuals are at best tolerable and at worst unwatchable: some of Kubelik's close-ups in the Concertgebouw performances are much too close for comfort.