Josef Suk – Early Recordings
rec. 1956-67, Domovina Studio, Prague
Track-listing see below
SUPRAPHON SU 4075-2 [6 CDs: 76:38 + 73:37 + 77:41 + 72:04 + 68:48 + 60:27]
This excellently engineered and intelligently programmed retrospective of Josef Suk’s recorded legacy is a fitting salute – the first of a number, I hope – to the great violinist. It covers just over a decade’s worth of LPs made for Supraphon, and has the added pleasure of allowing us, once again, to hear his most distinguished collaborators and colleagues – men such as Josef Hála, Jan Panenka, Milan Škampa and André Navarra. The six CD box is devoted wholly to the chamber repertoire.
The first disc combines Dvor(ák and the music of his most admired pupil, the violinist’s grandfather and namesake Josef Suk. The Four Romantic Pieces are beautifully shaped; Suk employs some touchingly effective portamenti though occasionally his vibrato is too hard-pressed. The last of the four is the best played and interpreted. Both the Sonata and the Sonatina gain immeasurably from Suk’s unwillingness to indulge them. He plays instead with sensitive nobility, a model of discretion. He plays his grandfather’s Four Pieces with drama and sweetness, though doesn’t seek to emulate, say, Ginette Neveu’s bravura.
Disc two continues the Czech Lands theme. His stereo recording of Janác(ek’s Sonata is better known than this 1956 mono with Hála. It was a work he clearly re-thought over the years, as he took the con moto instruction for the opening movement more literally in 1956 than he was to do later. His phrasing in the later recording is also noticeably less overtly expressive than this ardent and biting reading. It’s a real delight to encounter his 1965 recording of Jaroslav Ježek’s Sonata, a fascinating, even abstract work, sometimes grim and overcast, at other times freewheeling. There are also the two Martinu* Duos with Navarra. The first carries hints of that early hit La Revue de cuisine but greater emotion is reserved for the central movement of the second duo, piously vibrated by Suk and played with a powerful charge by both string players.
The third disc opens with a very boldly projected Grieg C minor sonata with Hála. Suk maintains considerable body of tone here and very espressivo gestures. He was a strong admirer, clearly, of Respighi’s sonata as he re-recorded it later with Hála – but here his partner is Jan Panenka. Unlike the Janác(ek his view remained pretty unchanging - highly communicative, and finely balanced. This disc closes with Brahms – an attractive waltz but the more substantial G major sonata with Hála once again in 1956. It’s a pity that this performance and the two other sonatas housed in the fourth CD recorded in 1962 – which are with Panenka – are not better known. The obvious reason why not is Suk’s Decca recording of the three sonatas with Julius Katchen, a firm favourite for many years.
These Czech performances are just a bit tighter structurally than the ones Suk made with Katchen, though the recording quality varies. The earlier First sonata is in mono and quite close up – close enough to catch sniffs. The later recordings are in stereo and more spread, and are correspondingly less febrile-sounding than the G major. The only real disappointment, for me, is the jog-trotting rhythm of the slow movement of the D minor, though I concede that my firm preference in all three cases is for the Katchen set. To complete the fourth disc there’s a charmingly played, rather adorable Schubert D major Sonatina and the gripping Duo with Panenka again – a distinguished reading of a work difficult to project.
Disc five is Franco-Belgian. Debussy’s sonata gets a robust, rather over-emoted reading very different from the central historic ones by Alfred Dubois and by Zino Francescatti, who are both more lithe and quicksilver. I like the Poulenc much more – incisive and challenging playing at good tempi, with fine gradation of tone, not least in the haunting central Intermezzo. Suk’s architectural probity is exemplified at its best in the Franck sonata (with Panenka, 1967) where his vibrato is at its most powerful and variegated in the second movement.
The last disc is a paradise of duos. Suk and Milan Škampa joust through Mozart’s B flat major Duo with bravura rhythm and tonal variety. Ensemble is superb. The whole thing reminds one of their recording of the Sinfonia Concertante. Then there is the resumption of his partnership with Navarra, represented by a superb Honegger Sonatina – the finale is bowed with glorious panache, elsewhere things are droll and dapper - and a heroically performed Kodály Duo. This big work receives a big performance and is another outstanding example of ensemble surety.
Congratulations are in order for this box, finely re-mastered, with a good booklet and with full recorded details included. This salute to Suk’s mastery in the chamber repertoire is everything one might have hoped.
Jonathan Woolf
An excellently engineered, intelligently programmed. A fitting salute to the great violinist.
CD 1
Antonín DVOR(ÁK (1841-1904)
Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op.75 (B. 150) [15:12]
Josef Hála (piano)
Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 100 (B. 183) [19:45]
Sonata for Violin and Piano in F major, Op. 57 (B. 106) [24:12]
Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 17[17:02]
Jan Panenka (piano)
CD 2
Leoš JANÁC(EK (1854-1928)
Sonata for Violin and Piano [15:46]
Bedr(ich SMETANA.
From the Homeland. Two Pieces for Violin and Piano [12:42]
Jaroslav JEŽEK (1906-1942)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1933) [20:14]
Jan Panenka (piano)
Bohuslav MARTINU* (1890-1959)
Duo for Violin and Cello No. 1, H. 157 [11:41]
Duo for Cello and Violin No. 2, H. 371[12:42]
André Navarra (cello)
CD 3
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in C minor, Op. 45 [24:24]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Evening Song for Violin and Piano, Op. 85, No. 12 [2:50]
Josef Hála (piano)
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in B minor (1917) [23:23]
Jan Panenka (piano)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G major, Op. 78 [24:23]
Valse for Violin and Piano in A major, Op. 39 No. 15 [2:10]
Josef Hála (piano)
CD 4
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A major, Op. 100 [19:58]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 [20:33]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonatina for Violin and Piano in D major, Op. 137 No. 1 [12:09]
Duo for Violin and Piano in A major, Op. 162 [18:59]
Jan Panenka (piano)
CD 5
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Sonata for Violin and Piano [12:50]
Jan Panenka (piano)
Clair de lune for Violin and Piano [4:09]
Josef Hála (piano)
La plus que lente. Waltz for Violin and Piano [4:07]
Alfréd Holec(ek (piano)
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for Violin and Piano [18:15]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major [28:54]
Jan Panenka (piano)
CD 6
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791).
Duo for Violin and Viola in B flat major, K. 424 [19:05]
Milan Škampa (viola)
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Sonatina for Violin and Cello [15:08]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7 [25:58]
André Navarra (cello)