Thursday, 28 August 2014

Dvorak in Love

Dvorak in Love
Tony Palmer's film Dvorak in Love was made for Czech Television in the 1980's. It was intended simply to be an account of the recording of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in the Prague with Julian Lloyd-Webber, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Vaclav Neumann. By interweaving the documentary footage with readings from Dvorak's letters the result, given Dvorak's generally presumed lack of involvement in politics, proved surprisingly political and the resulting film was not shown on Czech TV. It was premiered in the UK on the South Bank Show in 1988, and was the first documentary film to be shown on Czech TV after the fall of communism.


Palmer takes a comparatively sober documentary view of the proceedings. The main body of the film consists of eavesdropping on the recording sessions for Dvorak's Cello Concerto in the Rudolfinum in Prague. These in themselves make fascinating listening, as we see and hear the interaction between the venerable conductor and the young cellist with Neumann showing himself surprisingly flexible when it came to accommodating Lloyd-Webber's interpretation of the concerto. The footage runs through the concerto in order so that we get to hear a complete performance, albeit in pieces, with the final footage being of the conclusion of the associated concert. Perhaps the most revealing part of this is where they repeat sections and we get to hear the performers running a section of the concerto more than once.
 Josefína Čermáková
 Josefína Čermáková
Dvorak's letters are read by the Polish actor, Vladek Sheybal (best known perhaps for his villains in films such as Casino Royale). Initially these describe Dvorak's background, humble origins but Palmer has chosen well so that we get a good picture of Dvorak's own view of his career. One of the surprising things we learn was that as a young man Dvorak was in love with a young woman from Prague called Josefína Čermáková. She was from a good city family (whereas Dvorak as only a country boy, and an organist) and turned him down to marry a German. Though in the process of wooing her Dvorak wrote her a considerable amount of music (including a cello concerto), she rejected both him and his music, suggesting he marry her sister, Anna. This he did, and he later admits that the sister (his wife) made his career but he never really loved her, continuing to carry a torch for Josefina. Later in life, whilst in America he heard that she was dying, he comes home and remembering the cello concerto he wrote for her as a young man, writes another Cello Concerto dedicated to her. A few weeks after Dvorak had returned to Prague, Josefina died and he wrote a new coda for the concerto.

Antonin Dvorak
Antonin Dvorak
For Dvorak, Josefina was in some way his Czech soul (in a way that his wife was not) and his view of her was interwoven with his view of the way the Czech country had been usurped by the ruling Austrian Hapsburgs (perhaps not a coincidence that Josefina's husband was German speaking). Hence for Dvorak, politics become personal - 'an artist without a fatherland is an artist without an art.'  Dvorak has some surprisingly trenchant things to say about the Austrian occupation of Bohemia, things which were relevant to Russian controlled communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980's and which remain alarmingly prescient today.

This is a charming, delightful and rewarding film. By intercutting the recording sessions with the letters (illustrated with footage which includes Czechoslovakia's first president as well as German troops in the second World War and the events of 1968), Palmer provides surprising depth to the programme and really brings the cello concerto to life. It is also a fine record of a very great conductor bringing music to life.

Dvorak in Love is available from Amazon.

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