About this Recording
8.572323 - SUK, J.: Fairy Tale / Fantasy in G Minor / Fantasticke scherzo (M. Ludwig, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta)

Josef Suk (1874–1935)
Fantasy in G minor • Fairy Tale • Fantastic Scherzo


Josef Suk took his earliest lessons on the violin and piano from his father, a local schoolmaster. By the age of eleven he was ready for the Prague Conservatory, where, during his final year, he was fortunate to study composition under Antonín Dvořák, who had just joined the faculty. The acquaintance was propitious, in that Suk later married Dvořák’s daughter, Otilie. While at the Conservatory, Suk also studied chamber music with the celebrated cellist Hanus Wihan. In 1892 the latter recruited Suk to become the second violinist of the Czech Quartet (later renamed in honour of Smetana). Remarkably, Suk maintained his membership of the quartet for the next 41 years, performing in more than 4,000 concerts until his retirement in 1933.

With encouragement from Dvořák and Brahms, the renowned publisher Simrock began to release editions of Suk’s music, beginning with his Serenade for Strings, Op. 6. The continued exposure placed Suk among the important composers of the modern Czech school. The term ‘modern’ is significant, in that Suk extended the national banner well into the twentieth century. Although the Czech school had been established by Smetana and Dvořák, Suk fully embraced the breakaway trends epitomized by the music of Richard Strauss in Berlin, Gustav Mahler in Vienna, and the Impressionist colours of Claude Debussy in Paris. Moreover, Suk departed from the practice of relying on folk-music as a source for his original compositions.

Relatively late in his career, at the age of 48, Suk was appointed as professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory, where he taught several important composers, including Bohuslav Martinuº. For many years, Suk also served as a member of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Suk’s compositions reveal a diverse collection of works which are almost entirely tonal-poetic in nature, most of them for orchestra or piano.

A fine example of Suk’s amalgamated style is the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra in G minor, Op. 24, completed in 1903. At the time, the genre of the orchestral tone poem had gained wide favor in Europe, with examples as diverse as Smetana’s Ma Vlast, Richard Strauss’s Don Juan and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Moreover, evocative titles like Fantasy, Rhapsody or Caprice were very alluring, in part because they were not usually tied to a particular storyline. Rather, the music could suggest a progression of moods on the wing, carrying the listener to the realms of reverie and fancy.

Suk’s Fantasy begins with a robust introduction in veiled G minor, with a deft change of key into F sharp minor at the entrance of the solo violin. Indeed—as fantasy dictates—the music blends from romantic nuance into gusto and dash. Another character of the score is the pastoral ambiance of woodland effects, underscored by the soloist with dance-like accents. At every point along the way, the virtuoso rôle for the solo violin is at once spectacular and dramatic, tone-painted over a rich orchestral landscape.

Fairy Tale, Op. 16 (Pohádka) is an orchestral suite derived from incidental music Suk wrote in 1898 for a theatre piece titled Radúz a Mahulena by the Czech poet Julius Zeyer (1841–1901). The allegorical storyline is based on an old legend from Eastern Europe, which Zeyer spins through seven lavish scenes in four acts. In sum, the tale is about a dashing young prince Radúz, who desires the hand of princess Mahulena from a rival mountain kingdom. However, before they can achieve eternal happiness, the would-be lovers must endure certain rites of passage demanded by a sorceress queen.

The music begins with a luxuriant portrait of Radúz and Mahulena, with idyllic colours set in deep-amber strings and woodwinds. In the manner of Sheherazade, a solo violin offers a love song without words. But the foreboding challenges to Radúz and Mahulena capture the scene with daunting figures and pointed timbres, before reverie returns for assurance. In the second movement The game of swans and peacocks, a bucolic setting is rendered with folk-like tunes and countryside hues. Cast in sparkling B major, listeners will also note a tip-of-the-hat to the Slavonic Dances of Dvořák. Sheer delight. In Zeyer’s stage play, the death of the King brings a mortal reminder to Radúz and Mahulena. To achieve the effect, Suk relies on the symbolism of eternal swans, portrayed in the third movement, Funeral Music. The mood and setting is a clear reflection from the last act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, that is the scene where Prince Siegfried fears he has forever lost his beloved Odette. To complete the suite, Suk provides a rhapsodic finale titled Runa’s curse and how it was overcome by true love. The music begins with harsh heralding in the lead trumpet and lower brass, answered by startled strings and martial rhythms in the percussion. In the play, while wandering aimlessly in the woods, Prince Radúz has lost all living memory of Mahulena. But a mystic desire leads him to a poplar tree, which he decides to cut down for fire wood. He is not aware that the soul of his beloved Mahulena has taken refuge in the boughs, and as the sap begins to flow, her spirit regains his heart. They are united at last. After a series of colourful fragments replayed as memoirs, the music returns to the love aria from the first movement, again in the solo violin, as the curtain closes gently in E major.

Composed in 1903, Fantastic Scherzo in G minor, Op. 25, is among Suk’s most evocative works. After Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Chopin, and Mahler later on, the scherzo became a genre unto its own. Translated from Italian, scherzo means playful or joking, and is usually a bright-hearted scamper out for fun. But by the late nineteenth century, the form was often ironic or urgent, at times even sinister. For his part, Suk conjured a symphonic canvas replete with impromptu vignettes. The piece is masterfully scored, with droll character rôles for the various sections of the orchestra. Throughout the work, blithe fancy is on the wing, with a piquant middle section for contrast in mood and tempo. The gambit begins with wispy snippets in the forest reeds via woodwinds in gnomic guise. In turn, middle strings and cellos intone one of those haunting Czech tunes which endear and linger long in the heart. The central section offers a brook-side interlude, with frills and trills, again in the reeds and flutes. Low register strings add a tender enchantment before the breezy energy of the opening is regained, again borne by the enchanted folk tune heard earlier. Brassy fanfares escort the closing coda into a shower of accented rhythms and sparkling color. Splendid.

Edward Yadzinski

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