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 Obituary, Jiří Bělohlávek (1946-2017)

Jiří Bělohlávek (1946-2017)The Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek has died aged 71 following a lengthy illness. Particularly renowned for his interpretations of music from his homeland, his extensive discography includes a much-praised Dvořák series with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on Decca (indeed their searing Stabat mater was our Disc of the Week only last month), a multi-award-winning disc of Suk's orchestral works on Chandos, and an outstanding Káta Kabanová from Glyndebourne in 2011 (along with Sir Charles Mackerras, he was widely regarded as one of the most persuasive advocates for Janáček in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries).

Born in Prague on 24th February 1946, Bělohlávek was educated in his home city (where his teachers included Sergiu Celibidache) and spent much of his early career there and in Brno. His hugely fruitful relationship with the Czech Philharmonic began in the early 70s with a spell as assistant conductor; in 1990 he succeeded Vaclav Neumann (who had held the post for over two decades) as music director. Though this initial appointment lasted just a year, he continued to perform and record with the orchestra throughout the late 90s and 2000s and returned as Chief Conductor in 2012, resulting in a stream of award-winning recordings of Czech repertoire on labels including Supraphon and Decca; following a renewal of their agreement in January of this year, he was contracted to remain in the position up until 2022.

As well as his long-term collaboration with the Czech Philharmonic, Bělohlávek founded the Prague Philharmonia and held positions with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra (becoming the first non-native English speaker to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in 2007, and returning two years to play the vacuum-cleaner in Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture!).

He gave his final performance with the latter orchestra (poignantly, Dvorak’s Requiem) just six weeks ago at the Barbican; reviewing the concert, The Guardian praised the ‘unforced musical truthfulness’ and the Financial Times the ‘slow-burn intensity’ of his interpretation. Bělohlávek’s death was formally announced this morning by the Czech Philharmonic following notification by his family yesterday; he is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Jiří Bělohlávek - a selected discography

Frank Peter Zimmermann, Alisa Weilerstein, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek

'The playing throughout has a transparency, with wonderfully woody woodwinds, and Bělohlávek’s affectionate accounts of the “pastoral” Fifth (F major) and the vigorous Sixth (D major) are highlights.' (The Sunday Times)

Available Format: 6 CDs

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Jiri Bělohlávek

'His relaxed though steadfast approach is immediately apparent…the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s contributions are disciplined and impassioned…[the solo quartet] are uniformly superb…Bělohlávek perfectly judges the delicate balance between singers and orchestra.' (Gramophone)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Ivan Kusnjer, Richard Samek, Dana Burašová; BBC Symphony Orchestra & BBC Singers, Jiří Bělohlávek

'Above all, this is Bělohlávek’s triumph. Nobody knows better how to layer Smetana’s musical building blocks into an idiomatic, coherent edifice, sweeping us along with a concentration that is no less powerful for being so firmly controlled … a mighty reading which gives enormous satisfaction.' (Opera)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Ana María Martínez, Brandon Jovanovich, Larissa Diadkova; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus, Jiří Bělohlávek

'Bělohlávek's conducting [is]...full of warmth, exuberance and humour, and lifting the London Philharmonic to great heights in the tragedy of the final act.' (The Telegraph)

Available Format: 3 CDs

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek

'Excellent performances: Bělohlávek has done wonders to acquaint us with the lesser-known Czech repertoire.' (Financial Times)

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jirí Bělohlávek

'If anyone can find the key to their language, it is Jiří Bělohlávek...there is plenty of freshness, verve and expressive wisdom on this set.' (The Telegraph)

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Paul Lewis (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Bělohlávek

[Lewis's] simple goal is to get inside the music and propel it outwards...Bělohlávek shapes the orchestra’s contribution with almost as much care...Here is high-quality music-making, subtle but authoritative, made to last.' (The Times)

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Robert Gambill, Nina Stemme, Katarina Karnéus, Bo Skovhus, René Pape; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus, Jiří Bělohlávek

'I don’t think that I have ever witnessed a more perfect realisation of a Wagner opera...Bělohlávek is scrupulous with the score, and takes his time over it: the pauses and silences are immense and there is no factitious attempt to whip up excitement by speeding…A great and unforgettable occasion.' (The Telegraph)

Available Format: 3 DVD Videos