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Karel Ančerl

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is the leading symphonic ensemble in the musically rich Czech Republic, with a long history of definitive performances and recordings of Czech repertory. The orchestra has sometimes found itself a topic of political contention as the waves of European history have swept across its homeland. Like many other Central European orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic began as a theater orchestra: a group of orchestral musicians at the Prague National Theatre named themselves the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1894, and in two years the wisdom of the move became apparent when Dvořák conducted the group in a concert of his own works. By 1901, the Philharmonic was a fully independent entity, and it quickly gained renown beyond Czech borders; Mahler conducted the orchestra in the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7 in 1908. The most important among the orchestra’s early conductors was Vaclav Talich, who held the post of principal conductor for most of the period between 1919 and 1941.

The orchestra’s conductors since then have all been internationally renowned figures. Rafael Kubelik assumed the baton under German occupation in 1942, remaining until 1948 but fleeing at that point as Czechoslovakia came under Communist rule. His successors have included Karel Ancerl (who fled to Canada during the Soviet crackdown after the so-called Prague Spring of 1968), Václav Neumann, and Jiří Bělohlávek, all of whom were distinguished interpreters of Czech music, of Mahler, and often of French and 20th century music as well. Their recordings gained critical acclaim in the West despite Czechoslovakia’s partial isolation during the Cold War. In the late 1980s, the orchestra participated in Czech protests against Soviet domination. A performance of Smetana’s Ma vlast in 1990 marked Kubelik’s return to his homeland for the first time in 42 years. Bělohlávek served from 1990 to 1992, stepping down as the orchestra appointed Gerd Albrecht to be its first non-Czech conductor. This move generated controversy, and Albrecht also resigned in 1996. He was succeeded by Vladimir Ashkenazy (1996-2003), who led the orchestra on major international tours. He was followed by Zdeněk Mácal and the Israeli Eliahu Inbal. Bělohlávek returned in 2012 and was essentially given a contract for life, making critically acclaimed recordings before his death in 2017. Since 2018, the orchestra’s conductor has been the Russian-born Semyon Bychkov.

The Czech Philharmonic has recorded prolifically, at first mostly for the Czech national label Supraphon. In the late 2010s, the group has also recorded for Britain’s Decca label, which has continued to issue Bělohlávek recordings in its vaults. In 2019, his reading of Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony appeared on Decca.