A parting gift from Jiri Belohlavek

A parting gift from Jiri Belohlavek


norman lebrecht

December 26, 2017

Among the major losses of 2017, the death of Jiri Belohlavek hit particularly hard.

Jiri was a conductor of deep reserve, never showy, intensely private. He was elected chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in Communist times, overwhelmingly re-elected after liberation and then unceremoniously dumped by the players a year later in favour of a German conductor who promised a bigger record deal.

It says much for Jiri’s loyalty and humility that he returned to the Czech Phil when it was in trouble in 2012 and served as chief conductor until his death of cancer on May 31, aged 71.

Jiri was the exact contemporary and schoolmate of my dear friend Tatiana, who died six months earlier. The two losses are inextricable in my mind.

I am listening at this moment to a glistening 2014 performance of Smetana’s Ma Vlast that Decca will rush-release next week. Tears are hard to restrain.



  • Robert Roy says:

    My wife, who’s a fluent Czech speaker, and I were lucky enough to meet Maestro Belohlavcek on a couple of occasions when the Czech Philharmonic were playing in Edinburgh. What a lovely, modest man he was. I do remember one awkward moment when he spoke to me in Czech, assuming that I too spoke the language! There was a pause while my wife translated his question into English which concerned the appreciation of single malt Scotch!

    We treasure his set of Dvorak symphonies that he was kind enough to sign for us. An exceptional man!

    (And I’ve always loved the fact that his exceptionally Czech sounding name translates as George Whitehead!)

  • buxtehude says:

    He got the BBC Orchestra behind Martinu in a big way too. Even at a distance news of his death felt like a blow to me.

  • Paul Davis says:

    Wonderful musician. I heard most of his Martinu symphony cycle with the BBCSO, but some years before, managed to catch him with the Prague SO on tour at the Montpellier Festival with a fantastic Martinu 4th. Afterwards we discussed in detail many points about this marvellous piece, especially as i’d critiçose the cut in the 3rd movement; laughingly, he promised he’d reinstate the missing passage in his forthcoming recording, (i’m sure he was going to anyway- nothing to do with me!).
    Many marvellous memories; fortunately this sad loss is compensated by a fine recorded legacy.

  • MacroV says:

    I suspect the recording is from the same performance (Prague Spring) as the DVD that has been available for several years. Unfortunately, in three years in Prague I never saw him conduct Ma Vlast, but saw him lead a number of great performances – Martinu, Mahler, and an unforgettable Jenufa with Karita Mattila.

    I’ve never seen the reaction and mourning for any musician that I saw for him in Prague. But understandable for a man who for about 40 years was almost continuously involved with one or another Prague institution – the Prague Symphony, then the Czech Philharmonic, Prague Philharmonia, National Theatre, then again the Philharmonic – all much of the time the Conservatory or Academy of Musical Art. He was truly a Prague institution.

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    I share the sadness of losing Belohlavek at such a young age. However, I am at least happy that Decca is issuing this late-in-life retake of the Smetana cycle. It might make a nice complement to his existing Decca Dvorak offerings.

    I’ve got a couple of questions about this recording. Why did Decca wait till 2018 to issue this recording? If they had made it in 2014 they could have issued it sooner. Also, I am wondering if this is a separate audio-specific recording rather than an extraction from the DVD release of Belohlavek’s 2014 Ma Vlast.