Suk was the second violinist in the Bohemian Quartet
and spent much of his free time on tour sketching works he would later
elaborate or orchestrate. Most of the works in Pavel Stepan’s reissued
disc date from early in Suk’s composing life and are still deeply imbued
with those late Romantic influences he was later more thoroughly to
absorb. There is little of the great and absorbing orchestrator in these
winsome little miniatures and their very real charm, though undeniable,
doesn’t run too deep.
Stepan battles against a slightly hard acoustic – Supraphon’s
recording engineers occasionally struggled in the Domovina studios in
the early to mid 1970s – but this has the almost paradoxical effect
of strengthening the profile of Suk’s deliciously rich though melodically
salon-inspired genre pieces. Nalady or Moods is described in the booklet
notes as a "conceptually homogenous pentalogy" – in other
words it’s a suite of five charming movements. The first, Legend, has
nostalgically rolled chords and Suk’s already characteristic modulations
in place, with a central section slower, more romantic and wistful.
Stepan’s rubato in Capriccio is entirely apt and purposefully effective;
his tough playing is as winning as his tender. Perhaps rather surprisingly
Suk, whose use of folk stimuli was never as indulgent as say, Novak’s,
emerges as somewhat the superior of the two here. I find Novak’s use
of the Barcarolle decidedly inferior to Suk’s Bagatelle. The Romance,
the third of the cycle, is charming with non-cloying sentiment, harmonic
progressions never dreary, whilst the Bagatelle makes rather more of
the piece than superficial playfulness; the accelerando is especially
well played by Stepan.
Stepan’s distinct affinities with Suk are reinforced
in op 12, the Piano pieces. The pianist is careful but affectionate
in bringing out the dance, Louceni Louceni, that runs through
it. It was Dvorak’s who acutely noted that the third of the set, an
Adagio ma non troppo, would make a good operatic duet. It does have
a very vocal quality with its dark, rather glowering chords and felicitous
modulations – and its rise to a rushing central section that is reminiscent
of Schumann. In the composer’s score he wrote "Chase after a butterfly"
at the head of No 6 – though it’s otherwise noted as an allegro vivace.
Motoric, with fluttering scurries and treble trills it ends in a certain
wistful, rather maudlin way – the butterfly caught? The cycle concludes
as it had begun – with a brooding little Andante that gives way to a
middle section of vivid dance rhythms and pulsing with life – a little
anticipatory of Rachmaninov in some ways and vibrantly songful.
A few other pieces complete the disc – including a
swaggering, tuneful and rather lusty-Lisztian Fantasie Polonaise and
an amusingly sly Humoresque. There’s nothing here to match the depth
of Suk’s later op 28 cycle O Matince (About Mother) but in their harmonically
rich way, with their easy melodies and fluent writing, albeit of the
salon school, Suk’s early pieces, especially when so knowingly and freshly
interpreted by Stepan, still make an infectious impression.