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JOSEF SUK

Great-grandson of composer and violist Antonín Dvořák and grandson of composer Josef Suk I, Josef Suk III was a key figure in the history of Czech string playing, being probably the most prolific and acclaimed player of his generation from that country. His sizeable discography covers comprehensively the violin’s mainstream repertoire as well as some recordings on viola. He was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque six times, as well as gold and platinum discs and the Wiener Flötenuhr and Edison prizes. Aside from his prominent worldwide playing career he also conducted
and enjoyed chamber music, performing with several small ensembles including his own Suk Trio with Julius Katchen (piano) and János Starker (cello). During his student years he became first violinist of the Prague Quartet. This interest was something of a continuation of his grandfather’s legacy: Josef Suk I was second violinist of the Czech Quartet (known as the Bohemian Quartet 1891–1918).

The selections made here from Suk’s large discography represent his approach to mainstream repertoire (although there is not space for every well-known collaboration, such as the Brahms violin sonatas recorded with Julius Katchen), as well as some of the music with which he had strong ancestral connections, and some of his prize-winning releases.

In Classical repertoire his playing can seem rather over-emphatic, as an otherwise fine 1967 performance of Beethoven’s Op. 24 Violin Sonata shows (an ambassador here for the complete set recorded with Jan Panenka). The powerful sound – particularly arresting in the development section of the first movement – is somewhat akin to that of David Oistrakh, evidencing great strength in bowing, and appealing to the consciousness of the listener. Where Suk’s style differs is in the rather wide and slow vibrato, which can make longer notes sound rather unstable. His Baroque performances (such as the 1999 Benda Violin Concerto in G, or F major Concerto for viola) are a revelation. Here there is strong playing again, but with a certain dazzling quality to the high registers, more emotive and convincing than many supposedly historically-informed performances of the last few decades. This is modern playing, but there is a neatness and tightness that overrides the modernity and it is good to hear such repertoire played with intensity: the third movement of the Concerto in G, for example, reminds one of Hubay’s full-toned playing of eighteenth-century music. The viola concerto selected here shows that Suk’s powerful tone works very well on the larger instrument. Not all violinists transfer satisfactorily to the viola, but Suk most certainly does.

The 1965 Berg Concerto interpretation is notably a modernist one: few indeed are the portamenti and other early twentieth-century realisations of Romanticism, and what results is a clean-cut reading with a penetrating bitter-sweet tone, even if the widely-spaced stereophonic sound is perhaps a little over-engineered for current tastes. Suk is rather strident on the E-string, but the intensity here is tremendous.

If anything, the 1960 Debussy and Janáček issue is finer still. The Debussy is played with a delicacy that is perhaps surprising given Suk’s heavier sound elsewhere, with good tempi that avoid the gestures being spaced too widely, and some superlative pianism to boot. The Janáček creates a very
different sound-world, showing Suk’s versatility in varied styles: the opening, for example (although perhaps a little rushed in the first theme), could not be more impassioned, with high-position tone of the utmost intensity, exquisitely garnished with appropriate portamenti.

In the music of Josef Suk I and Dvořák it is tempting, and in some ways accurate, to assert that Josef Suk III is an authentic representative of his forebears. There are certain stylistic anachronisms in his performance of Suk’s 4 Pieces, recorded in 1966, that may be a subconscious recollection of his musical heritage: the use of a tight vibrato and some quite pronounced portamenti in the first piece is subtly suggestive of an earlier age of playing (one that, likely as not, formed part of his grandfather’s compositional Gestalt).

The most recent recording (2009) selected here is Songs My Great-Grandfather Taught Me: a collection of Suk’s transcriptions for violin/viola and piano of works by Dvořák. There is much colourful music here: as examples one might light upon the deep and sonorous ‘Songs my mother taught me’ or the beautifully rich ‘Give ear to my prayer’ from Op. 55, played on Dvořák’s own viola.

Despite remarks by some critics suggesting that Suk’s avoidance of showy virtuosity somehow reduces his calibre, his recorded output certainly testifies to his status as one of the most important violinists of the late twentieth century.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)


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