Josef Suk was one of the most gifted composers of his
generation, and created several works, such as the Fairy Tale,
the War Triptych, the symphonic poem Praha and the Asrael
Symphony, which deserve to be in the international repertory. Generally
these compositions reflect an inclination towards a serious mode of
expression, typical of the style known as 'late romanticism', and it
seems which was already apparent during Suk's days as a student at the
Prague Conservatory, where he studied composition with Antonín
Dvořák (who later became his father-in-law).
In addition to an increasingly significant career as
a composer, Suk was the second violin of the famous Bohemian String
Quartet for over thirty years. He also taught at the Prague Conservatory,
where he numbered Martinů among his
pupils. But composition always remained his first love, mainly in orchestral
and instrumental genres, and it can be no surprise that he was most
at home in chamber music.
This CD, featuring the ensemble that bears the composer's
name, gathers together various works for string quartet. The fundamental
aspect of the music is how well written it is, how the parts all contribute
to the whole. Take the opening of the Quartet No. 1 (TRACK 1: 0.00),
for example, the sound is so natural in its balance and projection.
And as we might expect of Czech performers, the sensitivity to every
nuance is palpable. The recorded sound is consistent across all the
performances, even though the recording dates and even the venue do
vary. It is the typical Supraphon ambience of an ample acoustic and
plenty of atmosphere. It suits the music rather well.
The Quartet No. 2 is the boldest music in this collection,
and by some distance. Perhaps that stemmed from the decision to gather
the implications of a multi-movement work into one single span of construction.
Again the opening is distinctive (TRACK 6: 0.00), a deeply felt meditation,
in which the eloquence of the playing brings forth the eloquence of
the music. But as the work proceeds, so the contrasts build, and perhaps
the music's greatest strength is the sure control of structure. These
things raise particular issues for the performers, and I am sure the
composer would have been pleased with what his namesake quartet achieves.
The Tempo di Menuetto is an afterthought piece, an
arrangement of music from a piano piece, and somehow it sounds like
it. Suk conceived the Allegro giocoso Quartet Movement as an optional
item, an alternative finale to the Quartet No. 1, rather than as a separate
item or the beginnings of another Quartet. As its title would indicate,
it is an engaging enough piece, although the slightly shorter original
version sounds just as well.
This enterprising programme is completed by a great
work: the Meditation on the St Wenceslas Chorale. Perhaps this
music is best known in its orchestral version, as part of Suk's War
Triptych, but this is the original score and this is how the music
sounds best, with that extra degree of intimacy. Composed in 1914, the
music is concerned with images of hope amid the sufferings caused by
war, and has a traditional Czech chorale as its symbolic and potent
image. This performance (TRACK 8: 0.00) has just the right qualities