The music of Josef Suk, pupil of Dvořák and married to the elder composer’s daughter, is only now beginning to be recognized for its true worth. Presented here are three relatively early works, brimming with youthful enthusiasm but already showing considerable individuality, a highly developed approach to structure, and, occasionally, a touch of the melancholy introspection which was to inform many of the composer’s later works. A talented violinist, Suk lends to his chamber compositions a true understanding of the genre, while his thoroughly ‘Czech’ musical upbringing ensures strong representation for the folk and dance influences to be found in the music of many of his contemporaries.
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As our understanding of the tradition of Czech music expands both forward and backward from the national revival of the nineteenth century, it is informed by a great diversity of riches. Janácek and Martinu are now well established in the international repertoire, while the Czech composers of the eighteenth century are seen as an important part of the context in which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven worked. In all of this, the presence of Josef Suk has not loomed large, but is now beginning to come much more to the fore.
The facts of Suk’s life are well known. Like many contemporary Czech musicians, he was initially tutored by his family in a musically literate setting; compositional success arrived at an early stage during studies at the Prague Conservatory. A favourite pupil of Czech music’s greatest luminary, Antonín Dvorák, he joined that august composer’s family when he married Dvorák’s daughter Otilie in 1898. A talented violinist, he became a founder-member of one of Europe’s most important string quartets, the Czech Quartet, and over the years was seen as a senior figure in Czech music and a mentor for many, including Martinu.
Although Suk, given his similar educational background and sensibility as both string player and performer, might seem the ideal successor to Dvorák, there are many differences between the two. Unlike Dvorák, Suk did not compose operas and despite a tendency among commentators to see his music in a line of descent from the older composer, their musical languages were quite different; one of the great qualities of Dvorák’s teaching is that he ensured his pupils were no mere imitators. Even in Suk’s early works there is considerable individuality and a highly developed approach to structure. There is also a tendency towards expressive melancholy perceptible well before the dual tragedies of Dvorák’s death and that of Otilie, in 1904 and 1905 respectively. This watershed experience turned introspection into an eloquence found in the symphony Asrael (1905–6) and subsequent orchestral works that, once discovered, speak to an audience with a force comparable to that of Mahler.
Many of these qualities are already evident in the Piano Quintet in G minor Op 8; although it was published in 1915 it was, in fact, composed in 1893, relatively early in Suk’s career. Another strand is also apparent in the Quintet: it is dedicated to Brahms, an old friend of Dvorák, who had already given Suk advice and encouragement. The influence of the German composer can be felt in the rhetoric of certain passages, notably in the first movement. But the Quintet is far from being a compendium of youthful enthusiasms for the work of more venerable composers; many aspects of the melodic style, in particular, are typical of Suk throughout his career.
The Quintet’s first movement opens in robust fashion with vigorous motion in all parts and soaring lines for viola and cello. Throughout this bracing movement the impetus rarely flags, although there are moments of repose; the last of these is in an extended passage based around G major. This leads into a bouncy coda which, just before the major-key close, broadens out into a grand final peroration. The Adagio lives up to its secondary marking, Religioso, with an inspiring chant-like opening in which chords for the strings alternate with sweeping arpeggios for the piano. The cello leads the melodic material of a central section which results in a remarkably ardent climax.
An airy pentatonic theme, a common feature in Czech music since the early days of Smetana and Dvorák, introduces an extended scherzo which, while embracing counterpoint and energetic development, provides an aspiring, almost bardic theme for the viola. Unsurprisingly, there is a passing homage to Dvorák’s great A major Piano Quintet in the trio, but Suk’s youthful adventurousness takes his attractively harmonized main theme in unexpected directions before the return of the scherzo. Dvorák’s Quintet seems to be a presence again in the a tempo introduction to the finale, perhaps also in the fugato passage in the development. But Suk’s individuality is evident at many stages, not least in some piquant harmony and the inventive transformation of the main theme of the first movement, which provides much of the finale’s material.
The Four Pieces for violin and piano Op 17 were composed in the spring of 1900 and dedicated to Karel Hoffmann, a fellow violinist in the Czech Quartet. The structure of these movements is simple, but their wide-ranging rhetoric proclaims a clearly sophisticated compositional temperament. The first movement, beginning with near-Impressionist colouring, also embraces extravagant romantic gestures in its central section. There is a hint of the national accent in the emphatic cross-rhythms which characterize the outer sections of the Appassionato second movement; these frame a passage of rapt lyricism entirely typical of Suk’s early maturity. This tendency is echoed in the intense opening of the third movement, although once again Suk, somewhat in the manner of alternation favoured by Dvorák in his Dumka movements, mingles seriousness with a brisker style of writing owing something to the Polka. The finale adopts the manner of a perpetuum mobile, drawing in a pastiche of the Classical manner amid the instrumental pyrotechnics.
Suk’s three-movement Piano Quartet in A minor is his Op 1 and was dedicated, appropriately enough, to his teacher Dvorák. Composed in the early 1890s, it is no surprise that it was taken up by the Prague publisher Urbánek, since it is brimming with character and confidence. The very opening idea of the first movement, which looks forward to that of the Piano Quintet, is both striking and original. Equally effective is the writing for the instruments, particularly in the lead-up to the movement’s secondary material. A wide-ranging and challenging development shows the young Suk to be completely in command of his ideas. Inevitably there are hints of his teacher’s style, but there is much that is entirely characteristic of Suk, including a tendency toward introspection, even in the outwardly confident opening Allegro appassionato. The slow movement, led off by the cello and piano, has a nocturne-like quality; an expressive central section, marked to be played a little quicker, has something of the ardent, fairy-tale atmosphere Suk later brought to his music for the play Radúz and Mahulena. The last movement combines the characteristics of scherzo and finale. A bold, march-like opening idea introduces a number of episodes, some gently yearning in manner, before an ebullient close.
Jan Smaczny © 2004