H E L Е N A VO N D R А C К О V A
ISLE OF HELENA (ОСТРОВ ЕЛЕНЫ ВОНДРАЧКОВОЙ)
PRAGUE RADIO DANCE ORCHESTRA conducted by JOSEF VOBRUBA
Produced by BOB ONDRACEK
RECORDED AT THE SUPRAPHON STUDIOS,
PRAGUE in February 1971
I was fortunate enough to be present at Helena Vondrackova’s first public performance. In Spring 1964 she came to Prague to take part in a singers’ talent competition as a seventeen-years’ old girl from the little town of Slatinany in East Bohemia whose 3,336 inhabitants could boast of one cinema and an amateur society. In the semi-final of the competition she sung Gershwin’s Summertime and in the final The Man I Love by the same composer. And I—similarly as the other members of the jury—had no other choice than to award her first place among a number of singers who had already had experience in singing with an orchestra.
Six months later she made a wonderful appearance on television in a five-minute recording of Red River Valley. In 1964 she won fourth place in the Golden Nightingale listeners’ poll and in 1965 first place in the same contest.
Since that time Helena Vondrackova has forged her way continuously ahead. Apart from Europe, the festival public of Rio de Janeiro (where she enjoyed the reputation of being the most beautiful contestant of the festival) and of Tokio is acquainted with her art. She is not a studio miracle whose glory fades on the concert platform. Neither her beauty nor her captivating dance movements on the stage, ranging from jazz ballet over tap-dancing to farce, are of decisive importance for Helena Vondrackova. The key to her success lies in her singing and musical abilities.
It was once said that Bohemia was the conservatoire of Europe and Mozart did not hesitate to proclaim: «My Prague people understand me.» The foundation of that tradition was well illustrated by Antonin Dvorak in the character of the old teacher Benda in his opera The Jacobin. Thousands of such Bendas, performing music in schools and home quartets, helped to hand down musical talent from generation to generation and to give rise to a whole number of renowned composers and reproduction artists.
It was in such an environment that Helena Vondrackova also grew up in the small township of Slatinany. At the age of four she began to tap out her first melodies on the piano and when she was six her father, a clerk by profession but in body and soul a Czech musician, the pianist in the local dance orchestra, began to teach her. Later, with all seriousness, the director of the School of Music at Havlickuv Brod, Miloslav Vymlatil, also took her under his wing. She performed Chopin, Bach and Beethoven and won numerous diplomas for her successful participation in piano contests. In addition, however, she also played the guitar, took part in swimming competitions, cultivated gymnastics (a hand-turn on the stage is child’s play for her), danced, and listened to the songs and radio jazz programmes. She was interested in almost everything and, moreover, successful in everything to which she turned a hand.
Thanks to her all-round but in particular musical preparation her talent had the necessary prerequisites for quick development. After her first recordings, taken from the repertoires of Helen Shapiro, Gigliola Cinquetti and others., which stressed mainly her pleasant, clear voice and youthful expression, Helena Vondrackova shone with her masterly and individual concept of the world hit Downtown from the repertoire of Petula Clark, this being followed by her irresistible rendering of Churchill’s songs from Snow White (the best I have ever heard). But by then her path was beginning to lead elsewhere.
Helena Vondrackova began to found her repertoire to an ever greater extent on original Czech songs, enlarging her genre possibilities with foreign compositions. With extraordinary tenderness—and, as always, without the slightest indication of a mere imitation of the original version— she sung Becaud’s L’important c’est la rose and with great sensitiveness interpreted a number of Donovan’s songs for the Czech public.
Of all her records the Isle of Helena album presents the present aspect of Helena Vondrackova best. Naturally, it would be hard to find the simple young girl of spring 1964 here, it being, perhaps, only Always Something There To Remind Me from the repertoire of barefooted Sandie Shaw of Britain that recalls that era. And while several years ago the singer’s musical feeling manifested itself mainly in her phrasing, ideally combining beat and swing elements, it is today concentrated entirely—together with her voice technique—on expression. On this record Helena Vondrackova does not sing two songs in the same manner. I shall not point to that what cannot be missed: her dramatic rendering of Free Again or her many-coloured mastery of mood in A Golden Treasure Isle. In my opinion, however, a real rarity is the taste and ingenuity which Helena Vondrackova shows in the humorous numbers. The Chaplin ode, Onkel Charlie, is, after all, something quite other than the singer’s interpretation of Lennon and McCartney’s Honey Pie; by no means does she merely exploit the comic nostalgia aroused in us by the music of the twenties, but imbues the song with her own charm, lending her singing pearly laughter and caressing sound without resorting to mannerisms.
Snow White the princess has become a queen. She possesses a necklace of tones, a diadem formed from the Czech musical tradition and gold in her throat. And in the role of hostess on her treasure isle she is just as natural as when she stood in front of the microphone for the first time in her life.