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Sarah Beth Briggs
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Song transcriptions for violin/viola and piano by Josef Suk
Biblical Songs, Op. 99 (1894) [23:00] ¹
Gypsy Songs, Op. 55 (1880) [12:12]
In Folk Tone, Op. 73 – Nos 1 and 3 (1886) [5:01]
Love Songs, Op. 83 (published 1882 and 1889) [12:55]
Lullaby, B194 (1895) [1:43]
Moravian Duets, Op. 32 – No.11 [2:54]
Four Songs, Op. 82 – No.1 (1882) [2:27]
Josef Suk (violin/viola¹)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. September 2009, Bohemia Music Studio, Prague
TOCCATA TOCC0100 [60:05]
These delightful transcriptions reach to the heart of Dvorák’s songfulness and, unmediated by interpolations or unnecessary curlicues, present them simply and aptly in a new, wholly worthwhile medium. Some may argue that they aren’t ‘necessary’ but one can counter this line with the idea that they are useful, the composer’s songs not being hugely promoted either in the concert hall or on record, though it’s true that there have been some notable recital discs.
The transcriptions have been undertaken by Josef Suk I – the Suks
are a dynasty as much as the waltzing Strausses – and this august
exponent of the Czech repertoire proves to have a light and felicitous
touch with his transcriptions. He doesn’t waste notes, nor does
he meddle. He is at his most interventionist in the Gypsy Songs
where he gives the piano some more work to do, but even here discretion
is the watchword. [We now undestand that he left
the piano parts of these transcriptions untouched]
The essence of the songs is their rich communicative spirit. The first of the Gypsy songs, My Song of Love Rings through the Dusk, is a case in point no less than the canonic Songs My Mother Taught Me (where the piano part is more difficult than it sounds). Give the Hawk a Fine Cage is the last of the seven, vital and engaging. One notes that Suk has filled out the piano parts here and there, and they are played with princely refinement by none other than Vladimir Ashkenazy. This is luxury casting all round.
They play two of the Op.73 set, including the lovely Dobrou noc. This is particularly susceptible to a straightforward transcription, and in its artless beauty and tender refinement it makes a marvellous concert closer in vocal form and would do in this form too. Suk and Ashkenazy, one notes, don’t hang about; they play it directly and unsentimentally. The Op.83 Love Songs mix melancholy with charm and glee. The seventh is full of dappled lyricism. The Op.82 No.1 song finds Suk bringing greater bow weight to bear, his tone stronger and heavier than heretofore.
For the Biblical Songs he exchanges violin for viola. He has been noted as a violist for many years. The most famous setting is the fourth, The Lord is my Shepherd, and from its brief recitative onwards we are treated to a most soulful but not glutinous reading. Just as good is the Bohemian rhythm of the fifth, I will sing a new song. The most stoic setting, it always seems to me, is that of Psalm 61, Hear My Cry, O God. The melody of No.9 is unveiled with a fine viola cantilena. To end we have one of the Moravian duets in which Suk duets with himself, on violin, to charming effect. Is it still called overdubbing?
This is a delightful release, attractively recorded, and with a good booklet note from Tully Potter. Suk’s vibrato has inevitably slowed over the years – he was 80 when he made these recordings – and is less vibrant in the lower strings now, but his sense of delicacy and refinement and colour are still there. He remains a marvel.
If you know the songs, or even if you don’t, I think you’ll love these transcriptions.
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