On November 17th, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov played Smetana’s Má vlast, that most iconic of Czech works, in a benefit concert on the theme of freedom and democracy. The resulting broadcast reached 207,000 people on Czech television alone – 2% of the whole country – and half of those watched “from the first minute to the last”. Robert Hanč, the orchestra’s General Manager, estimates that when you add streams on Facebook and other media, a typical major video project reaches three to four hundred thousand people – a reach that’s extreme compared to the 1,148 seat capacity of the Czech Philharmonic’s home at the Rudolfinum in Prague.

Robert Hanč
© Petra Hajska

Given the trauma to live performance caused by Covid, it’s not surprising that recording – both audio and video – is of huge importance at this moment, but Hanč sees it as far more than just a pandemic filler activity, and the orchestra has a long recording pedigree which has attracted an enthusiastic following over many decades. When Hanč joined the Czech Phil in 2011, they had already been recording for over 80 years: their first recording was made in 1929 for His Master’s Voice, Václav Talich conducting the orchestra in Má vlast. In the latter half of the 20th century, they built an extensive discography with the Supraphon label – the recordings of the 1950s and 60s with Karel Ančerl, Hanč tells me, are being rereleased as the “Karel Ančerl Gold Edition”.

“The Czech Philharmonic exists, I think, because of three things. The first thing is to bring the best of classical music to people in the Czech Republic: the best conductors, ensembles, soloists, the best repertoire, the best quality of playing. The second reason is that we should act as the Czech Republic’s most important cultural ambassador. And the third thing is that we should educate, we should cultivate. Of course, we love concerts, that’s the best thing we do. But at the same time, if you record, you can also reach lots of people.” They intend to repeat the Velvet Revolution concerts yearly in future.

Hanč considers recording and live performance to be of equal importance today, but with an important difference from days gone by. “In the past, recording was an important source of income for the orchestra. 30 years ago, the musicians of the Czech Phil had a salary and then they earned at least the same amount through recordings, sometimes even more. Today, recording is definitely not to earn money. It's promotion, it's marketing, it's good for your reputation, but it is not an important source of income anymore.”

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic recording Tchaikovsky
© Petra Hajska

He admits that it was a matter of good fortune rather than foresight that when Covid struck, the orchestra was well set up to adapt to video, having properly equipped the Rudolfinum for filming, complete with 4K high definition cameras. “We saw that the Berlin Philharmonic did this in 2009 [with their Digital Concert Hall], we saw that other orchestras were starting and we thought ‘we want to be among those orchestras.’” There was hesitation because of the high expense of the installation and also the running costs (“you need 30 people to make a filming project happen”). But historically, the Czech Phil had relied on record labels (Supraphon, Decca and so on) for audio and on Czech Television for video and they were chafing at the restrictions that those dependencies imposed: “we wanted to control the quality, because if you’re dependent on a TV station, they usually say they can only spend one day with you, so they come in the morning, they install the equipment, they film one concert and they go. The quality is not bad, but it’s not extraordinary. Now, we have our TV team here for four or five days: when the orchestra is rehearsing, the TV staff are rehearsing also, setting microphones, setting cameras, trying to find the best angles. And we don’t record just one concert: we record three and choose the best.”

The orchestra has set up their own producing house: Czech Phil Media. There’s a downside to this, Hanč accepts, namely that it’s expensive and time consuming to do everything on one’s own, including those things traditionally done by your record label, but that’s more than balanced by the orchestra’s desire to take control. Partly, it’s about sheer volume: a label is likely to limit an orchestra to one or two releases per year, whereas the Czech Phil want to do far more than this, using recording as a means of documenting their legacy. It’s also about being able to choose one’s own mixture of popular classics and exploratory repertoire: “we don’t want to record Dvořák again and again and again. We want to do composers who are not well known, but we believe in them, we believe they're really strong”. Ančerl was able to record contemporary Czech music as well as the standards and today’s Czech Phil want to do the same: they currently have commissions in progress for fifteen new works, nine of them from Czech composers. As well as contemporary music, the orchestra would also like to record works by composers like Miloslav Kabeláč, a “wonderful composer” who died in 1979 and is not well known because he had a troubled relationship with the communist regime.

Czech Phil Media control room for Mozart gala
© Petra Hajska

The orchestra’s latest recording of a popular classic is the Tchaikovsky Pathétique symphony they made with Bychkov in 2019. In doing so, they were joining a list of recordings of the Pathétique by 81 orchestras and 105 conductors. How, I ask, does Hanč justify producing yet another addition to such an extensive list? “There are several reasons for this, one of them being the fact that we used to feel that we were in a trap, because we have so much Czech repertoire. There were so many successful Czech composers: when we tour, people want us to play Dvořák all the time, or  Smetana or Janáček. So we thought we need to record something non-Czech. How do we start? Well, we have this exceptional conductor who is Russian, and we are Slavic.” Bychkov agreed that the orchestra had the right sound for Tchaikovsky and took the view that there’s always space for a new recording as long as it’s a great one. Their next major recording project will be a Mahler cycle: “We feel that Mahler is completely connected with the Czech Philharmonic: he was born in what is now the Czech Republic, he conducted the orchestra and he gave the world premiere of his Symphony no. 7 with the Czech Philharmonic in 1908. The orchestra kept performing Mahler and I think the Neumann recording is really outstanding, but it was 30 years ago. We thought that if it’s our tradition, if it is part of the repertoire of the orchestra, it’s high time we recorded a new one.”

I can vouch for the Rudolfinum being a great place to hear the orchestra live, but I’m interested to know how it works for recording. “It’s great, but it has some disadvantages as well. When we have acousticians here and we ask ‘should we do anything about the acoustics’, they say ‘no, keep it, it’s lively, it’s beautiful’. It’s what defines the sound of the Czech Philharmonic. But at the same time, when you speak with the musicians, they’ll tell you that it’s not ideal, because they can’t hear each other so well. If you perform in a modern hall like the Philharmonie in Paris, they hear each other much better. But we have this hall because it helps us keep our unique sound.”

Robert Hanč
© Czech Philharmonic

There was plenty of music around the household in Hanč’s childhood, albeit not classical and certainly not professional (“my father played the guitar, but very badly, I think. My mother played the piano a little bit.”) His grandmother, however, was a keen opera lover and took him “to a few things”: he remembers seeing Tchaikovsky and Dvořák’s Rusalka as a very small child. But the family sang folk songs and he loved singing, which led to him studying clarinet at music school and then at conservatoire. He studied musicology as a second subject, and then American and English literature and history: he was simultaneously working for the Brno Philharmonic and lecturing at Masaryk University in Brno when the job offer came for the Czech Philharmonic, which was the deciding factor in him settling on a musical career.

It’s not a choice he regrets. In the Covid era, he says, “people in the orchestra have been just wonderful. People were scared, but in the end, they said let’s play. This is exactly the time when we should be serving our community. We’ve played throughout the crisis. When things were the hardest, the worst, we told our musicians ‘you don’t have to. It’s optional.’ But actually, we were surprised: almost everybody decided to play. It’s like 1989 in the Velvet Revolution: the musicians of the Czech Philharmonic were among the first who went into the streets and they said ‘yes, we have to support this’. So now, again, a time of crisis: we are here to serve and to help.”

This article was sponsored by the Czech Philharmonic.