In his decade from 1987 as chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Czech musician Libor Pešek, who has died aged 89, transformed it into an ensemble of international standing, renowned as “the best Czech orchestra this side of Prague”. Having been offered the post after only two concerts with the orchestra, he had no conscious intention of changing its sound: “It must simply have happened through spiritual engagement with my colleagues in the orchestra.”
The aim, he said, had been not to build a Czech sound but a “Liverpool sound” and happily, “the combination of British restraint and my Slavic heart-on-the-sleeve appeared to be attractive to our Liverpool public”.
His other major appointment was as conductor in residence of the Czech Philharmonic from 1982 to 1990, and a set of Dvořák recordings – symphonies, tone poems, suites and overtures – he made with the two orchestras in tandem points up some fascinating contrasts. Where the symphonies recorded with the RLPO (Nos 1, 3 and 7–9) are incisive and bracing (the first movement of the seventh, in D minor, has a fierce, dark intensity), those with the Czech Philharmonic highlight a compatriot’s instinctive empathy with the Bohemian style in their lyrical warmth, charm and geniality.
Pešek was a passionate advocate of other Czech composers too, not least Smetana and Janáček. He also helped to establish the music of Josef Suk in the British repertoire. The recording with the RLPO of Suk’s autobiographical Ripening intuitively captured the transition from the “storms of life” to an atmosphere of calm, while that of the powerful Asrael Symphony also conjured sympathetic, sensitive playing from the Liverpudlians.
Born in Prague to Anna and Ludvik Pešek, a civil servant, he attended a high school where one of his classmates was Miloš Forman, the Czech-American film director, with whom he shared an enthusiasm for jazz and with whom he later collaborated on various projects.
He then studied the piano, cello, trombone and conducting at the Prague Academy of Musical Arts, continuing his conducting studies after graduation with Karel Ančerl, Václav Neumann and Vaclav Smetaček. After gaining experience as a repetiteur, first at the Plzeň Opera and then at the Prague National Theatre, he launched his career with the Prague Chamber Harmony, a wind band he founded and directed (1958–64), and with whom he made a number of recordings for the Czech label Supraphon, and the Sebastian Orchestra, Prague.
He subsequently became chief conductor of the Czech Chamber Orchestra (1970–77) and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra (1980–81), also holding various posts in the Netherlands during the 70s. Then came the posts with the prestigious Czech Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool PO. With Pešek at the helm, the latter was invited to the BBC Proms in 11 consecutive seasons (1988–98), including two appearances in 1991 and 1994. Notable among these concerts were a performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and the Proms premiere of the Asrael Symphony, though the repertoire also featured Mahler, Berlioz, Honegger and others.
He toured widely with the orchestra throughout mainland Europe, the US and east Asia. The RLPO was the first non-Czech orchestra to be invited to open the Prague Spring festival (1993), returning three years later. Pešek remained conductor laureate on resigning the chief conductorship.
Other orchestras with whom he was connected included the Prague Symphony Orchestra, of which he was principal guest conductor, and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1993, of which he was chief conductor from 2007 to 2019. He also made regular guest appearances with the major London orchestras, the Oslo Philharmonic, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other leading orchestras.
A man of somewhat old-fashioned charm and geniality and a sympathetic colleague to his players, he displayed qualities that undoubtedly shaped his music-making. A recording of Brahms’s Second Symphony with the LPO (1988), for example, is notable for its sunny warmth and honeyed phrasing. The latter was indeed a hallmark of his style, resulting in readings that were generous in spirit, lingering lovingly, even seductively, over poignant harmonies.
A Gershwin disc made in 1995 with the Slovak National PO, including Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, offers an intriguing glimpse back to his early days as a jazz trombonist in a swing band. It was an experience that helped develop his ear for sonority: “I think that with a big band the ‘sound’ is almost everything,” he once said.
He was appointed an honorary KBE in 1996 and awarded the Czech Medal of Merit (first grade) the following year.
He is survived by his partner, Jarmila, and his son, Philip.
• Libor Pesek, conductor, born 22 June 1933; died 23 October 2022