> SUK Ripening Talich [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Ripening - a symphonic poem (1917)
A Fairy Tale - suite (1900)
Czech PO/Václav Talich
rec Dvorák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 28 Apr 1956 (Ripening), 2 May 1949 (Fairy Tale) mono
SUPRAPHON 11 1904-2 001 [70.58]


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Josef SUK (1874-1935)

Ripening. Symphonic Poem, Op. 34 (1917) [39’32"]
A Fairy Tale, Op. 16 (1898) [31’16"]*
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Václav Talich
Recorded in the Dvořák Hall of Rudolfinum, Prague 28 April 1956; *at the Domovina Studio, Prague 2 May 1949
SUPRAPHON 11 1904-2 001 [70’58"]

Down the years there have been a number of top class Czech conductors, among them Ančerl and Kubelik. However, the one man who stands out as probably the father of Czech conducting is Václav Talich (1883-1961). Not only did Talich play the leading role in bringing the Czech Philharmonic to the front rank of world orchestras but he also passed on his immense knowledge of Czech music to a succeeding generation of conductors, among them Sir Charles Mackerras. His career was frequently interrupted by the various political vicissitudes of twentieth century Czech society and this undoubtedly reduced the number of recordings he left.

Those who are familiar with his magisterial 1952 recording of Suk’s Asrael Symphony will know that he had a special affinity for this composer’s music and the performances on this CD confirm that. Indeed, it was his conducting of the first performance of Ripening in 1918, the year after the work’s completion, which really put Talich on the map and led to his engagement by the Czech Philharmonic, which he led, with a couple of interruptions, from 1919 to 1941.

Ripening was inspired by a poem of the same name by the Czech poet, Antonín Sova (1864-1928). The composition occupied Suk on and off from 1912 until 1917 but he was frequently distracted by events including the deaths of his parents and also by other musical activities, including his membership of the Czech Quartet. As John Tyrell, the noted authority on Czech music, has pointed out, the Czech title of Sova’s poem, Zrání, translates not just as "ripening" (as in the case of fruit), but also as "maturity". In his poem Sova expounds his view that maturity comes from bitter experience.

Suk’s piece, which plays continuously, is not a programmatic work but rather a meditation on the conflicting emotions that the human spirit can go through in trying to attain spiritual maturity despites and during the travails of life. As we all know, life has its ups and downs and so too, emotionally, does Suk’s piece, which depicts a wide range of human emotions and feelings through colourfully scored, expansive music.

A large orchestra is employed but though there are some massive climaxes the score contains many other passages of chamber-like delicacy and refinement (and, it must be said, Suk’s climaxes are never vulgar or ostentatious.) It is, above all, in the more lightly scored passages that the mastery of Talich and the excellence of his CPO players are most obviously demonstrated. In these refined passages we can hear some marvellous string playing and some extremely characterful wind contributions.

Truth to tell, the Supraphon recording does get pretty congested in the passages which are more fully scored (and the orchestra is quite often at full throttle in this work.) If you want to hear a full and truthful recording of Suk’s score the 1992 Virgin recording by Libor Pešek and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra wins hands down over Talich (and Pešek directs a pretty good performance too). In one other important respect the Pešek recording enjoys an advantage for Virgin divide the score into eight separate tracks. While the work plays continuously this separate tracking does help the listener to get his or her bearings. As I indicated, Pešek’s is a very sound interpretation but Talich does have a rather special authority and he leads the ear on very persuasively. He is also, rightly, I think, a bit more urgent in certain places than Pešek whose performance takes a full two minutes longer. Both readings give enormous satisfaction.

Incidentally, though the documentation makes no mention of this point, Talich does indeed employ the wordless female chorus whose brief interjection in the serene coda is so telling (track 1, 35’03" onwards.) Pešek’s chorus, though properly distanced in the aural spectrum, are better recorded and so make more of an impact. The introduction of female voices, albeit briefly, strikes me as a master stroke by Suk as it reinforces the conviction inherent at this point in the music that despite all the preceding tribulations, maturity has indeed been attained by the time we reach the end of the piece.

The four-movement suite, A Fairy Tale originated in extensive incidental music which Suk composed for a play, Radúz and Mahulena by one Julius Zeyer which was first produced in 1898 at the Prague National Theatre. Put simply, the play relates the tale of a prince and princess (the eponymous hero and heroine) whose love is so strong that it survives all the tribulations which life throws at them. Work on extracting the suite from the much longer complete score occupied Suk from September 1889 to June 1890.

The suite is a magical, atmospheric score, orchestrated with an opulence which at times verges on the Straussian. Probably because it is a much more obviously narrative work than the allegorical Ripening the argument is easier to follow (though as music Ripening is a score of greater stature.)

Once again there is much to admire in the CPO’s playing for Talich. A sensuous, finely spun violin solo in the opening movement, ‘True love of Radúz and Mahulena and Their Sorrows’ (track 2), is a particular delight – the music returns at the end of the last movement (track 5, 5’52") as the heart-easing coda illustrates Radúz and his princess finally attaining loving happiness. If the first movement of the suite features especially the rich, resonant strings of the CPO then the brief polka which follows it (track 3) brings the wind to the fore and the playing is incisive and most characterful. The gravely impassioned Funeral Music (track 4) is performed with great feeling. Here we are in the sound world of Asrael, though not quite at the same level of intensity that one experiences in that searing, elegiac masterpiece.

Talich’s conducting of the suite is very fine and he obtains playing of genuine passion and commitment from the CPO. Incidentally, one thing which listeners will notice in both works is an almost complete absence of the Slavic vibrato which became such a feature of the brass sections of Eastern European orchestras in the 1950s and 1960s. I can only presume that this feature only spread gradually through conservatories after the Iron Curtain came down and musicians in central Europe became more heavily influenced by Russian colleagues.

The recording of A Fairy Tale was made seven years before that of Ripening. However, I actually preferred the sound of the earlier recording. On my equipment, both through loudspeakers and headphones, the 1949 sound appeared to have a more telling bass (though some listeners might think the sound "boomy"). Also the recording coped with climaxes a bit more easily and there seemed to be a more natural front-to-back perspective to the sound picture.

The limitations of the recording prevent this CD from being a first choice. For Ripening I would confidently recommend Pešek’s Virgin account while A Fairy Tale has been recorded splendidly for Chandos by Jiŕi Bĕlohlávek who, like Talich, conducts the Czech Philharmonic. (Pešek has also recorded A Fairy Tale with the CPO, this time for Supraphon, but I have not heard this account.) However, the performances collected here are uniquely authoritative and the lustrous playing of the CPO can’t be hidden by the elderly recorded sound. I ought to point out that the liner notes are not especially helpful as regards the music; most of the background information given above has been obtained from other sources.

This Talich CD is essential listening for all admirers of the eloquent, superbly crafted music of Josef Suk and I strongly recommend it to collectors as an essential supplement to the modern recordings mentioned above.
John Quinn

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