Recently, I watched “Great Conductors in Rehearsal and
Performance,” a DVD featuring Karel Ančerl and Hermann
Scherchen. These two gentlemen are connected, as Ančerl
(1908-1973) studied with Scherchen (1891-1966), prior to
World War II. This disc consists of two rehearsal clips from
the Canadian Broadcasting Company archives, that were
issued by the VAI label in 2005.
The first rehearsal on the disc is of Ančerl with the Toronto
Symphony Orchestra. He became their director during 1968.
Prior to that, he was the longtime (1950-1968) director of the
Czech Philharmonic, and was instrumental in building that
ensemble’s reputation to world-class standards. Ančerl left
Czechoslovakia following the Soviet-led invasion of that country,
and remained with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra until
The work featured here is the ever-popular “Vltava”
(The Moldau) by Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). This was
Smetana’s most popular work, and one of the symphonic
poems comprising the cycle “Má vlast” (My Fatherland),
composed during the 1870’s. Ančerl seemed to be a fairly
congenial conductor, putting the musicians through their
paces without intimidation, and placing emphasis on the
proper places to accent phrases. I noticed that the
woodwinds and trumpets were doubled, and six French
horns were used, instead of the usual four or five. It’s
common to use five French horns in scores that require
four, with the additional horn played by the assistant
principal chair; however, I’m not sure why six horns were
used here. I also noticed that the tuba player sat at the
end of the trumpet section instead of the usual placement,
which is next to the third trombone. This was interesting.
The rehearsal was followed by a performance of the work,
in the same rehearsal space. It was originally telecast in
color by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, on
February 5, 1969. It was a fine performance, and I suppose
it was a testament to Ančerl’s skills. Based upon the
aforementioned rehearsal footage, it was evident that
the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had not yet achieved
first rank status.
The second rehearsal was of Hermann Scherchen conducting
the CBC Toronto Chamber Orchestra, during a rehearsal
of his own arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s
“Art of the Fugue.” At the time of Bach’s death in 1750,
this work had been left unfinished. Bach didn’t specify
the instrumentation of this piece, and it has been
arranged in a multitude of ways over the years,
even for saxophone quartet!
Scherchen was particularly known as a champion of
contemporary music. Earlier in the century, he worked with
Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), among others. He also
wrote a highly influential and widely praised Treatise on
Conducting. His orchestration of Bach’s work was another
source of fame for Scherchen, and watching him rehearse
these players was most informative. He had a very
business-like, no-nonsense approach, with definite ideas of
how he wanted “his” piece performed. I found it interesting
that he used two Cor anglais players, as a part of the
instrumentation. Comparatively, the members of this
chamber orchestra were possibly of a higher caliber
than the corresponding instrumentalists in the
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, under Ančerl.
Scherchen dissected and reassembled this piece in various
places, thereby providing me with a great way to re-familiarize
myself with this music. I also found it interesting that near
the end of the rehearsal, a solo harpsichordist was featured.
A telecast of the rehearsal was broadcast by the Canadian
Broadcasting Company on June 1, 1966, in black and white.
Perhaps due to the length of this work, it was not followed
by a performance. The picture quality was not the best, and
the mono audio occasionally dropped out, here and there.
Nevertheless, I’ve always believed that when viewing this rare
archival material, we should take what we get, and be
grateful for it. I know that I was, because I’d never seen
footage of these conductors before. This is why I always
grab the opportunity to view these rehearsal/performance
archives on DVD, whenever I can. Of course, I recommend them!