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Josef Suk and Rudolf Firkušný at the Prague Spring International Music Festival 1992
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 100 (B. 183) (1893) [16.31]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1938)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1913-21) [12.56]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
>Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1886-88) [18.58]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 10 in G major, Op. 96 (1812) [21.30]
Josef Suk (violin)

Rudolf Firkušný (piano)
rec. live, Prague Spring International Music Festival, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, 18 May 1992. DDD  
SUPRAPHON SU 3857-2 [70.24]

 


This unique live recording made at the 1992 Prague Spring International Music Festival, captures the finely honed artistry of two legendary musical personalities, Suk and Firkušný. Years after emigrating to the USA Firkušný returned to the stage at the Prague Spring Music Festival as Suk’s pianist. Their brilliant recital of sonatas, the high point of the Festival, is a true artistic delight. 

Prague born violinist Josef Suk (b. 1929) has the highest possible musical pedigree being a grandson of the famous Czech composer and violinist Josef Suk and great grandson of Dvořák. Suk from an early age combined his solo career with chamber music playing with the Prague Quartet, the Suk Trio which he founded in 1951 and the Smetana Quartet. The recipient of many prestigious awards, Suk became conductor and artistic director of the Suk Chamber Orchestra in 1981. 

Moravian born pianist Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994) also has an impressive pedigree having studied with composer Leos Janáček from a young age and piano study with Vilem Kurz and composition with Josef Suk. Firkušný left Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupation in 1939 and settled in New York, USA in 1940. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1946 to perform at the first Prague Spring International Music Festival. With the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Firkušný gave up plans to return to his homeland and became an American citizen returning only occasionally to see family and friends. After the fall of the communist regime Firkušný returned to Czechoslovakia to perform for the first time after more than forty years in exile.

Dvořák Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 100 (B. 183) (1893)

With the exception of his last creative period Dvořák devoted practically his entire life to composing chamber music, which is so infused with fresh, folk music elements, enchanted with lyricism, spontaneous rhythms, inventive harmonies and robust timbres. Dvořák wrote his Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G major in New York in the autumn of 1893 and dedicated it to his children; the fifteen year old pianist Otilie and ten year old violinist Antonín Jr. The four movement score, that I have seen named as Indian Lament’, is less technically demanding than usual, although, the score is not short of invention and reveals his mature creative process.

Suk and Firkušný display a special affinity for the Sonatina offering compelling playing. The second movement Larghetto is played with an impressive nostalgic yearning and I especially enjoyed the buoyant interpretation of the Scherzo which is bursting with warmth and ardour. The duo make sparks fly in the closing movement Allegro and from the loudness of the applause the audience just loved it, as did I. 

Despite the melodic attraction of the Sonatina there are surprisingly few accounts available in the catalogues. I have never been completely satisfied with my version from Anthony Marwood and Susan Tomes on Hyperion CDA66934. The ‘Slavic character’ of the recording, made in Bristol in 1997, is not convincing enough for my ears. The account of the G major Sonatina from Václav Remeš and Sachiko Kayahara on Praga PRD250153 has many admirers and is a version that I intend to hear. The Praga recording from Remeš and Kayahara also contains an account of the Janáček Violin Sonata.

Janáček Sonata for Violin and Piano (1913-21)

Janáček’s Violin Sonata took an unusually long time to compose, between 1913 and 1921 and during that time he revised the work four times. Janáček commenced the score at the beginning of the Great War, “when we were waiting for the Russians in Moravia”. This note casts light on the noticeable Russian colouration of some of the melodic turns in the score. Janáček’s succeeding revisions were composed in the atmosphere of the events of war, as well as in the throes of a later romance.

The four movement score unfolds as a passionate swathe of sound and in these expert hands the performance is alive and compelling. I love the way that Suk and Firkušný accentuate the passionate content of the second movement Ballada - Con moto and the very brief but good humoured Slavic Scherzo movement is given a suitably edgy and boisterous performance. I am highly satisfied with this excellent performance and the urgency to hear the Praga account from Remeš and Kayahara (mentioned above) has certainly lessened. Perhaps the best known account of the Janáček Violin Sonata is from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Alexander Lonquich, from 1990, on EMI CDC7543052.

Brahms Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1886-88)

Brahms composed a great deal of his Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor during a vacation at Hofstetten, near Lake Thun, in the summer of 1886. Brahms set the work aside for two years and completed the four movement score only when he returned to Lake Thun in 1888. Brahms usually reserved the key of D minor for his most deeply felt and passionate moods and the Violin Sonata No. 3 is a muscular, tough, and at times a nervous, intense and darkly coloured piece.

Suk and Firkušný perform the score with urgency and alertness in a traditional yet uninflated style. In spite of thoroughly enjoying the performance I have certain reservations about this interpretation especially as the competition in this much  recorded score is extremely fierce. The opening Allegro lacks the emotional concentration of Nils-Erik Sparf and Elisabeth Westenholz on BIS-CD-212 and of Shlomo Mintz and Itamar Golan on Avie AV2057. In the Adagio Suk and Firkušný cannot equal the nobility and deep romanticism provided by Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim on Deutsche Grammophon 289 453 121-2. However, the buoyant playing is a match for any duo in the short and sharply contrasted Scherzo movement. In the stormy Presto agitato conclusion my favourite account is the vibrant and spontaneous interpretation by Josef Suk on his earlier 1967 London studio recording with partner Julius Katchen, on Decca 421 092-2. Realising consistently refined musicianship throughout the D minor Violin Sonata Suk and Katchen would be my all-round first choice account.

Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 10 in G major, Op. 96 (1812)

The G minor Violin Sonata is Beethoven’s tenth and last work in the genre. Beethoven composed the score in 1812 inspired by the heartfelt expressivity of the outstanding French virtuoso Pierre Rode. The score is considered one of Beethoven’s warmest and most intimate creations in the violin sonata form and it certainly feels that way here. I especially admired the ability of Suk and Firkušný to provide the necessary lightness of touch and grace in the opening Allegro moderato. In the slow movement they impressively create an atmosphere of restrained beauty. At the conclusion of the excitingly played Poco allegretto the audience showed their appreciation with torrents of applause; how I wish I had been in Dvořák Hall with them.

In the hands of Suk and Firkušný the sonata provides considerable enjoyment and is a version that I will undoubtedly return to. From my collection I am enthusiastic over the account of the G major Sonata from the pairing of Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim. Recorded in the early 1970’s this is high quality music making from two friends that is joyously infectious. The recording forms part of a 9 disc box set of the complete Piano Trios, Violin Sonatas and Cello Sonatas, that includes cellist Jacqueline du Pré, on EMI 5 74447 2. Another version that I greatly admire for its spontaneity and excitement is from Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich on a 3 disc set of the complete Violin Sonatas from Deutsche Grammophon 447 058-2. 

The live recording is crisp and clearly recorded by the Supraphon engineers although the balance slightly favours the violin. The liner notes are interesting and helpful. 

I have many live recordings in my collection but few that can match the electric atmosphere provided here. The recording is a testament to the art of two twentieth century stalwarts of chamber music.

Michael Cookson 

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