What a genuine pleasure to welcome back the cycle of Beethoven
violin sonatas recorded in Prague by Josef Suk and Jan Panenka,
taped in the Rudolfinum between October 1966 and November 1967.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, and of movements, everything
sounds perfectly scaled, well balanced, perceptively played
and adroitly characterised. These are performances of great
elegance and musicality. Subsidiary themes, say for example
accompanying violin passages, are just that. They are not inflated
to become quasi-lyric themes in themselves, but neither are
they relegated to aural obscurity. Balance is everything in
performances like these, and the well versed Suk-Panenka duo
(I heard them a couple of times in concert) has the measure
of the sonatas.
The early sonatas have an easygoing charm about them, the first
two Op.12 sonatas emerging with lustre. The first serious challenge
arrives with Op.12 No.3. Here we find the duo responding with
sufficient brio to vest the music with excitement and life.
Suk is elegant but not over emotive in the slow movement. Indeed
it’s a feature of his playing that it remains, as it were,
on the aristocratic side in expressive matters. Panenka supports
with crystal clear trills; and there’s plenty of vitality
in the finale.
A highlight of No.4 in A minor remains Panenka’s staccati,
part of an assured all-round performance. The Spring
sonata is sweet-toned, quite relaxed and precisely articulated.
There’s no luxuriating or otiose gesturing. Rubati are
controlled, and Suk’s vibrato usage doesn’t widen
inordinately in the slow movement. The performance remains measured,
refined, precise, and a little cool.
This sense of sensitive but no-nonsense directness shouldn’t
be confused with an earlier practitioner, let’s say, Joseph
Fuchs, who tended to be hard-nosed about the sonatas. Don’t
mistake Suk’s unwillingness to luxuriate for a lack of
affection; rather it’s sensitive reserve, a quality never
to be underestimated, in music or, indeed, in life. Thus the
great G major sonata (No.8) is graced by just these qualities.
The Kreutzer is not played as an exercise in concertante
virtuosity for its own sake. This seeming lack of panache might
disappoint, but much is held in reserve, and much is observed
from on high.
In the last sonata great attention is paid to dynamics, to phrase
shaping, to ensemble and tonal balance. Suk and the engineering
team ensure his accompanying figures are precisely that. The
slow movement is calibrated between intensity and reserve, and
the finale is quite slow, and patrician.
The four CD box houses a decent booklet note. More than that,
however, it houses ten valuable, thoughtful and convincing performances
from one of the most outstanding duos of its time.
List of works
Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12/1 (1797/98) [21:47]
Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12/2 (1797/98) [16:28]
Sonata No. 3 in E flat Major, Op. 12/3 (1797/98) [20:03]
Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23, (1801) [20:46]
Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, ‘Spring’ (1801)
Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30/1 (1803) [23:07]
Sonata No. 7 in C Minor, Op. 30/2 (1803) [26:20]
Sonata No. 8 in G Major, Op. 30/3 (1803) [18:17]
Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 ‘Kreutzer’ (1803)
Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 (1812) [29:57]