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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Piano Quartet in A minor Op. 1 (1892) [22'36] (Allegro appassionato [7'21]; Adagio [7'57]; Allegro con fuoco [7'12])
Four pieces for violin and piano Op. 17 (1900) [16'36] (Quasi Ballata: Andante sostenuto [5'11]; Appassionato: Vivace [4'06]; Un poco triste: Andante espressivo [3'53]; Burlesca: Allegro vivace [3'20])
Piano Quintet in G minor Op. 8  (1893) [33'42] (Allegro energico [8'17]; Adagio: Religioso [9'54]; Scherzo: Presto [5'55]; Allegro fuoco [9'32])
The Nash Ensemble: Marianne Thorsen (violin); Benjamin Nabarro (violin); Lawrence Power (viola); Paul Watkins (cello); Ian Brown (piano)
Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, on 30 November and 1–2 December 2003
HYPERION CDA67448 [73.01]


It’s good to see Hyperion giving coverage to some of Suk’s early chamber works. In choosing the Nash Ensemble they have selected musicians of practised authority in this sort of repertoire. The Piano Quartet is Suk’s Op.1, written when he was in his late teens. It has a bold forceful Dvořákian feel though some of the passagework, especially in the first movement, can be rather dogged. In the pleasingly resonant acoustic of Henry Wood Hall the Nash Ensemble prove sure-footed advocates. Violist Lawrence Power shines in the texture. One’s ear gets drawn back to his contributions time and again not because his colleagues are inferior but because of the particular tonal qualities he evinces. The playing in the slow movement is warmly benign and pianist Ian Brown shows his mettle here as indeed he does in the finale where his sweep is impressive. But if one turns to the augmented Suk Trio’s recording of 1992 (Supraphon) one finds different qualities. They’re far more urgent in the first movement, rubati are less extreme, and the limber, brilliantly youthful playing arguably suits the tenor of the music rather better. Accents are sharper as well, the dialogue more bibulous and aggressive. For all the warmly lyric phrasing by the Nash Ensemble the Czech group gives rather more weight at a slightly faster tempo and more joined-up syntax. In the finale one finds the eponymous Suks cleave to a more explicitly Dvořákian line whereas the Nash sound rather more Schumannesque. It’s a valid variance of approach though the Czech playing is crisper – against which Brown is full of animation and drama. 

The Piano Quintet was dedicated to Brahms. There’s plenty of bite in the Nash playing in the first movement but it’s ultimately much straighter and less affectionately inflected than the Suk Quartet and Pavel Štěpán in their classic account on the same Supraphon disc as the earlier work. Try listening to the violin and viola exchanges in the first movement to hear expression vie with chaste restraint in the two recordings. The big difference however is in the slow movement. The Nash goes for hymnal solicitude, very attractively so with the strings-and-piano-as-harp texture, but there is much greater tonal texture in the Czech performance, a greater sense of urgency and a more intense feeling of dynamics, as well as a nobler and more commanding profile. The Nash is over two and a half minutes slower in this movement alone, especially in the case in the lyric development where they do tend to perfume the air slightly. The scherzo is fine in the new recording though Brown isn’t as effective in the evenness of his trills as Štěpán and the English group cedes to the Czechs in organisational tightness. Similarly the Suk group takes the con fuoco instruction and runs with it; the Nash are slower and just a touch more pedestrian.

The Four Pieces haven’t lacked for players over the years though most fight shy of the integral set and dish up the last one, the Burlesca. Marianne Thorsen and Ian Brown are commendably straightforward here though they can’t match Josef Suk and Jan Panenka. The older pairing know just how to vary and shade the repeated material of the Quasi Ballata and even at a slower tempo vest it with unceasing life. The Nash duo tends, in the end, to lack the naturalness of phrasing that the Czechs bring to the Appassionata second piece and the range of tonal resources that they possess – as well as a certain rapport that only intimacy can bring.

Some of these differences are ones of emotive alignment and expression. Some indeed will welcome the more languorous and romanticised textures of the Nash ensemble. In fact they may make for complementary recordings; the Czech’s furioso and espressivo to the English group’s more becalmed charms. I know where my tempestuous money goes but the Nash offers a warm and attractive alternative.

Jonathan Woolf



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